The term “waking nightmare” has rarely been better suited to a film than Ari Aster’s Midsommar, an experience bathed in chilly midnight sun that seems to last for mesmeric ages as it lumbers toward a voluptuous, flower-festooned finale as absurd as it is sickening. But before that journey starts, Aster’s new film begins where his first film concluded: in utter desolation.
Florence Pugh stars as Dani, an anxiety-ridden college student whose reliance on her thoroughly unremarkable boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor) turns to noxious codependency in the wake of a family tragedy. When the emotionally-distant Christian neglects to inform her that he and his male friends have been invited to attend a Midsommar celebration at a remote Swedish commune, the Hårga, she tags along in the hope that the trip will help her move past her trauma, or at the very least, forget it for a time.
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Midsommar is firmly rooted in the traditions of “folk horror,” a typically English subgenre in which scientifically-minded people find themselves at the mercy of pagan rites, rituals and curses that their modern minds can’t comprehend. But as Hereditary turned its archetypal house-of-horrors into a locus for the exploration of grief and mental illness as corrosive influences to the family unit, Midsommar similarly uses genre trapping to express its heroine’s internal journey through a stylization that tends toward the operatic. Aster reportedly wrote the script to process his pain after a bad breakup, and it functions as catharsis in the true Greek sense: as the purgation of raw emotion through the extremity of human experience.
None of this, of course, would fly without the dedication and skill of Pugh, who has the viewer on the hook from her first moments onscreen. Though her work here has a bit more reigned-in than Toni Collette’s cracked turn in Aster’s freshman effort, its no less impressive and the director shows himself to be adept at fostering truthful performances amid so much abstraction and chaos. This ability extends to an attention-to-detail that comes to the fore in Midsommar’s frequent crowd scenes.
Filled with long takes, obsessive blocking, and extreme angles, Aster imbues even the mundane with a sense of dreadful purpose, and clearly knows the power of a balanced frame to both unsettle and create unforgettable images. That Pugh, Reynor, and cohorts William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgre, and Will Poulter can find freedom within these stylistic constraints speaks to their strength as performers.
That’s not to say that everything Aster tries comes up roses. There’s a particularly egregious early setpiece marred by some truly terrible CGI, the film’s comic moments ring particularly hollow (Austin Powers? Really?), and many will find the length excessive. At 147 minutes, Midsommer is no jaunt, but in defense of what the film is doing, the running time allows the audience to be lulled by the strange unhurried rhythms of the setting and get to know the Hårga as a functioning, empathic community rather than a pack of grinning one-note monsters.
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Many will find the film’s ritualistic incidents laughable, and that’s okay. Lest we forget: Robin Hardy 1973 folk horror gold-standard The Wicker Man featured musical numbers and Christopher Lee capering about in what could only be described as swamp witch drag.
Whereas Ari Aster’s first film, Hereditary ended in total desolation, Midsommar starts there and claws its way back to life. The mark of a director who rewards your attention, the films echo each other in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways, Midsommar emerging as the fresh-faced, towheaded sister to Hereditary’s sloe-eyed, moribund beauty. Much like that first film, Midsommar may be too alienating for some viewers–its style too excessive, its emotions too big, its journey too arduous–but for those who can live in that discomforting nether space of naked human pain that Aster seems so frequently eager to finger, it is a bold, Instagram-ready cinematic exorcism.