All eyes have been on director Ari Aster after his debut feature, Hereditary, knocked the wind out of horror audiences last year. His sophomore creation, Midsommar, is an entirely different approach to unsettling cinema, with more mixed results.
Midsommar is a folk horror tale in full sunlight. It follows a group of college friends trekking through Sweden to visit the home commune of their gang. If this were the whole premise, the film would be much simpler than it is, but there’s far more going on here than a Eurotrip. Dani (Florence Pugh) is the emotional anchor of the story and she’s going through some dark times. Within minutes of the opening, we see her entire life fall apart and leave her alone to process her new reality. Well, she’s almost alone. Dani’s longterm boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is emotionally absent and a bit of a jerk. His friends Josh and Mark (William Jackson Harper and Will Poulter) are not fans of Dani. When their friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) invites the boys to come to Sweden to see a summer festival, they all jump at the chance, and Dani reluctantly tags along. As you can imagine, things turn bad for the college kids soon after arriving to the horrifying remote community.
Often in horror movies, the terrors come from the element of surprise. Hereditary famously capitalizes on sudden turns within the plot and jarring, violent acts just when you’re not expecting anything. Midsommar is a different beast altogether. Nearly every single moment of terror is told to us, either through folklore or explicit dialogue. The effect of these telegraphed terrors is not to subvert the tension, but to amp it up. It’s as if the fate of the characters has been predetermined and we’re not allowed to look away from their slow, spiraling demise.
Though Jack Reynor is one of the best working actors today, Florence Pugh carries the film’s heart. The opening scene relies on her face alone to deliver the beginning of her story, and she’s incredible. This scene will go on to rival Heather Donahue in The Blair Witch Project as one of the best performances from a character crying through a very long take. She cannot escape the camera for a single second and she nails it.
The pacing of Midsommar is like a light jog rather than sprints and starts. It moves steadily forward with intention, but never goes too quickly or two slowly. Where it falters is in including too many intriguing but undeveloped ideas. The film has certain nods toward a deeper structure of nefarious deeds that we really want to know about but are never explored to any degree of satisfaction.
Lest you think Midsommar is all mysterious mayhem and oncoming horror, it’s actually also pretty darn funny. Much of the humor is at Christian’s deserved expense, though some other lighter moments point to the gross absurdity of the characters’ predicament.
Midsommar plays like a slow and inevitable train wreck. It may not surpass Aster’s previous film, but it does show us that not all horrors live in the dark.