Midsommar

Writer/director Ari Aster's sophomore effort Midsommar, the ambitious follow-up to his critically lauded breakout film Hereditary, is likely to do for attending pagan solstice festivals what Steven Spielberg's Jaws did for going to the beach. Set in a very remote, seemingly peaceful Swedish village and drenched in equal measures sunlight and dread, Midsommar continues to establish Aster as a horror auteur who cannot be ignored. The striking power of his images, as well as his masterful use of music and sound, create an atmosphere both beautiful and terrifying. And while Midsommar, like Hereditary, might heavily employ certain tropes that have become horror cliche, Aster and his collaborators ability to hold viewers in a taut grip from the first frame to last is deeply unnerving. Midsommar is a daylit nightmare not easily shaken.

Also like Hereditary, Midsommar is a slow-burn kind of horror film that unfolds at a measured pace, and deals earnestly with real-world grief before plunging its characters into an otherworldly hell. In Hereditary it was Toni Collette's hysterical matriarch coping with family tragedy and her own (literal and figurative) demons, in Midsommar our heroine is Dani (Florence Pugh), a young college student whose strained relationship with inattentive long-term boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is tested further after a traumatic episode detailed in a chilling opening sequence. The film picks up a few months later as the grieving Dani, now more emotionally dependant on Christian then ever, decides to accompany him and his friends on a summer trip to Sweden, a choice he's not exactly crazy about. Their destination is the secluded ancestral village of Christian's quietly unassuming friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to observe the commune's midsummer solstice festivities which only take place every 90 years. Also along for the trip is Josh (William Jackson Harper), a fellow academic planning to write his thesis paper on the villagers and their customs, as well as Mark (Will Poulter), your typical college bro hoping to party with beautiful Swedish babes (mild spoiler alert: Can you guess who is also the first to go?) When they finally arrive at the remote destination it doesn't look particularly threatening, the sun seems to never set in Northern Sweden and the bucolic summer camp-like setting is home to smiling hippies decked out in matching white gowns, their playful children laughing with flowers in their hair. Of course Dani immediately suspects something's afoul underneath the deceptively benign surface, and with a runtime of 140 minutes Aster takes his time drawing audiences deeper into the culture, mythology, and rites of the pagan community, almost with the detail of an anthropologist, until the horror finally rears its ugly, barbaric head.

In my review of Hereditary I described that film as Ordinary People meets The Sixth Sense, while Aster himself cited such classic horror films as Rosemary's Baby, Don't Look Now, and The Exorcist as among its biggest influences. The obvious source point of inspiration for Midsommar is unquestionably The Wicker Man, a masterful piece of British folk horror from 1973 (interestingly the same year Don't Look Now and The Exorcist released), which is similarly terrifying in its exploration of the hidden horrors contained within a secluded pagan cult. Midsommar also contains sexually charged imagery in some moments that brings to mind Ken Russell’s The Devils from the same time period. In both Hereditary and Midsommar Aster has displayed a remarkable handle on how to ground his horror in the real-life psychological fears of his subjects, ensuring it's not merely his grotesque and often violent images that linger in the minds of audiences long after the credits roll. He still does, however, tend to create characters that exist more as broad archetypes than fully fleshed out individuals. The immensely gifted Florence Pugh, who can now lay claim to having two of the best performances of the year alongside her work in Fighting With My Family, delivers an emotionally draining turn, fleshing out Dani with an underlying desperation and vulnerability worthy of comparison to Toni Collette's amazing lead performance in Hereditary. Jack Reynor also deserves credit for bringing nuance and a similarly lived-in quality to the character of Christian, who on paper is basically just the stereotypical asshole boyfriend. Also impressive is Vilhelm Bolgren, whose calm assurance as the mild-mannered tour guide into this strange world never wavers, even as circumstances become increasingly dire and it's clear he possesses ulterior motives.

Surprisingly I found Midsommar to be a good deal more darkly funny than Hereditary, which seemed to be both supported and yet also weighed down by an overly somber atmosphere, even as the screenplay took a hard right turn into the supernatural. Though much like in Hereditary, Midsommar is most interesting when it relies on ambiguity in telling its story. For all the horrors Dani and Christian confront in their journey as their relationship deteriorates further and the midsummer rituals become increasingly bizarre, it's ultimately the unpleasant discoveries they find lurking within their own hearts that are likely to leave the deepest impression on viewers.