“Midsommar” is far from a traditional horror movie, as writer/director Ari Aster crafts a film that is less focused on causing scares in the shadows, but instead showing scenes in broad daylight that presents viewers with disturbing, sometimes revolting incidents.
The film follows Dani (Florence Pugh), her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his group of friends as they travel to Sweden for a midsummer festival held by the home village of their friend, Pelle. Soon after the group arrives, though, they begin to see the festivities are based around serving a deity that calls for sinister acts.
On top of being terrorized by people in white tunics and floral crowns, Dani and Christian must deal with their toxic relationship, full of one-sided manipulation and co-dependence. The only thing keeping them together is a tragedy in Dani’s life that leaves her with no one else to lean on besides Christian, while he feels convicted to stay with her because of her misfortune.
It’s all set up in an opening that’s basically the inverse of the portrayal of loss in the beginning of “Up,” as the start of “Midsommar” only depicts a few hours instead of a lifetime and sudden agony permeates the tragedy, replacing the woeful, yet natural grief shown in the aforementioned Pixar film.
The hosts of the festival string along their visitors in a scheming, contriving way, just like Christian does with Dani in their relationship; it’s allegorical even down to the last scene, in which the couple’s paralysis symbolizes their inability to move on from one another.
Paintings and wallpapers in rooms subtly foreshadow something wicked set for everyone on the trip, with how they meet their demise being the only mystery (nearly every piece of art shown in the film makes its meaning more accessible). It creates a sense of dread more powerful than any slasher wearing a hockey mask could.
The sun only sets for a few hours in the village they stay in, and even then it never gets completely dark. This forces Aster to create scares in bright daylight with clear, blue skies and rolling green hills in the background, making every horror on screen a front and center, bloodcurdling spectacle — seeing these horrors in such gorgeous scenery makes it feel even more wrong.
Jump scares are few and far between in “Midsommar,” as the film bases its shocks around slowly building up the anticipation of what actually happens in the village’s rituals, with the result always being a display of gratuitous, overwhelming evil.
These rituals revolve around visionary set-pieces that methodically pace out the tension until it becomes apparent what the ritual is based around. Aster then keeps the camera almost solely on the vile acts taking place, only cutting away to sometimes show the reactions of those watching.
The depravity, wickedness and gore shown creates appalling moments that provide unique scares.
On top of this, there is first-class level filmmaking throughout “Midsommar,” whether it’s cinematography that accentuates the film’s beautiful setting or dialogue that makes each character unique without turning them into a stereotype or caricature.
Aster has called “Midsommar” both a break-up movie and a black comedy. He weaves these elements in between the distressing rituals and sometimes even infuses them, best shown in a penultimate ritual that is so strange it will draw a laugh from the viewer due to either their confusion or the absurdity on screen.
Other times the comedy stems from how rocky Dani and Christian’s relationship is, but other moments show how hostile and unfair the past few years have been for Dani. The script never has them shouting oversimplified thoughts at each other, but instead shows candid arguments that display deep-rooted issues which could only be solved by the two separating.
Pugh delivers the best performance in the film, showing a buried disdain for her current relationship while also delicately balancing the trauma of her past and the fear she currently faces. Multiple scenes have the camera showing only her as she lets her face say one thing while the tone of her voice sends a completely different message, creating a truly layered performance.
While some characters visited Sweden for fun, others visited to study anthropology. No matter their reason for coming, the supporting cast’s curiosity combined with a mix of arrogance and ignorance leads to their downfall.
The standout of the tagalongs is Mark (Will Poulter, most famous for his role as the son in “We’re the Millers"), who doesn’t know how to apologize or think about someone other than himself, even to the point where he sees no fault in urinating on the village’s ancestral tree.
Aster’s previous film, “Hereditary,” created horror in the slow realization that spirits were real and could be summoned for one’s own purpose. “Midsommar,” however, does the opposite by causally showing a village that has brainwashed themselves with homemade psychedelics as the viewer becomes aware all of the danger lies within the disillusioned commune they’re visiting.
Characters under the influence of these psychedelics have their distortions portrayed on screen but in a reeled-back manner, as the film trades in cliché depictions of exaggerated distortion for a more canny representation showing trees, flowers and other elements of nature moderately shifting in size and pulsating. For how in-your-face “Midsommar” can be, it knows when to hold back, too.
“Midsommar” is a criticism of tradition, as the only reason the village worships their deity with horrific and bizarre rituals is because their people have done it for generation after generation. There’s no complete explanation for their goal.
What’s supposed to be a half-study abroad, half vacation for the American visitors turns into a full-blown pagan-led nightmare, and with it comes human sacrifice, sadism and suicide. Aster somehow squeezes laughs and humanity into this, making it all the more impressive.
“Midsommar” creates scares in ways that hardly any other mainstream horror film would dare to try, and for that it should be respected. It may run a little long, but the payout is more than worth it if someone is looking for a new way to be frightened.