Writer-director Ari Aster's second feature film, Midsommar, is similar to his first, Hereditary, in how it deals with grief. Both films start at a very real place; in Hereditary, the initial focus is the loss of a child and how a family handles that incalculable anguish. Of course, like any good horror movie, things take a turn, and by Hereditary's insane, fiery third act it's no longer just about grief, but about the existential horror that comes with it. Aster, like many great horror filmmakers, is an expert at magnifying universal emotions. It's the heightened fear that get horror fans in the seats, but it's Aster's way of exploring grief that separates Midsommar from the rest; the story is familiar before but it's in how it's presented and handled that makes it vastly interesting.
The film begins with tragedy; Dani (Florence Pugh) loses a lot in a short amount of time. In the blink of an eye she's reduced to a crying, screaming heap, with only her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), to comfort her. These two weren't particularly doing well beforehand and, out of guilt and complacency on his part, they stay together leading up to the summer. One bad move deserves another; Christian and a group of his college classmates and friends plan a trip to Sweden to visit a commune and, because of an emotional miscalculation by Christian, he invites Dani to join them. It's a mess of a relationship, with one partner still vulnerable after a traumatic event and the other woefully incapable of helping and a big ol’ tool to boot... What a perfect way to enter a Swedish commune that turns out to be a deadly cult!
In a horror tradition extending back to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre through the Friday the 13th franchise and beyond, the set-up to Midsommar is simple enough: a group of college students end up at a cult and things don't turn out too well for them. There are also archetypes that the members of the group fall into; William Jackson Harper plays the nerdy Josh, Will Poulter plays the abrasive jokester Mark, and Vilhelm Blomgren plays Pelle, the mysterious Swedish student who invites these friend to the commune's 90-year festival. There aren't too many surprises, especially when it comes to who makes it out alive or not. It's well-trotted horror film ground, but Aster makes this trip into the heart of darkness something unique.
Visually, Midsommar is a stunner. Hereditary cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski re-teams with Aster and creates powerful imagery; these are some of the most haunting horror set pieces every shot in broad daylight — you see, night is very limited in this part of Sweden. The skies are always bright blue, the grass and trees are a healthy shade of green, and the natural colors blooming from the flowers are welcoming, but there’s an inescapable sense of dread throughout. Midsommar becomes a visual “trip”, too, as the characters take hallucinogens and the serine backdrops start to morph in front of their, and our, eyes. This is not a safe place.
The violence is graphic, but limited. Aster has a steady hand when it comes to delivering horror that initially shocks, but it never stays on screen too long to be gratuitous. The real horror comes from the mounting unease and tension. And, like in Hereditary, Aster lays a breadcrumb trail of visual clues hidden in the corners of the film leading to a jaw-dropping finale.
Ritual plays a huge part in what makes Midsommar so frightening. This “commune” is about tradition and in that blind-following their members become dangerous. There’s also a sinister allure to cultism that Aster manages to capture, too. It’s easy to fall into these trappings, to be pushed over the edge. Catharsis plays a key role in the film’s end; it’s that all too familiar sense of trying to find a place to channel your built-up rage that envelops Dani’s journey — it’s her story from the start, with Florence Pugh delivering one of the best performances of the year. There are screams throughout Midsommar and it’s especially striking when the screams of sorrow turn into something else. It leads back to what makes Midsommar so interesting; it’s not just a horror movie. While it conjures up some smart scares, it’s a personal drama at heart. Either you won’t forget the screams, or you won’t get the the visceral nature out of your mind, either way, Midsommar will stay with you.