Midsommar ★★★★½

2019 Ranked

Where does one begin to unpack Midsommar? A hellish nightmare of Swedish pagan rituals, bad boyfriends, and personal anguish, Ari Aster’s sophomore feature is as hypnotic and disturbing as his debut. Building out the familial trauma and leading into a ritualistic descent into madness as with Hereditary, Midsommar builds in different directions than its predecessor thanks to its Swedish vacation-from-hell. Taking direct inspiration from The Wicker Man in creating the customs of Harga and even for the climactic moment of their midsummer festival, Midsommar is an engrossing and enveloping cinematic experience that leaves one’s head spinning.

Ari Aster confession that he wrote this after a breakup is perhaps the best throughline can assess Midsommar through. It explains so much of the terror and the relief felt by Dani (Florence Pugh) as she travels to Sweden. Accompanying her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) on a trip to Pelle’s commune hometown, Dani is at a breaking point in life. Emotionally vulnerable to begin with and afraid she is driving Christian away with all of her “baggage”, things just worse for her. In a moment echoing the horrors of Hereditary’s beheading terror, she has just lost her entire family. Now, looking for a shoulder to cry on and understand her, she turns to Christian who, in turn, begrudgingly takes her to Sweden with him (after initially hiding the trip from her). The setup is clear: Christian does not want to deal with all of Dani’s life problems, he just wants to have sex with her (she does not want to yet), and his friends all belittle her and try to get him to leave her. It is this stage that Aster sets for unholy revenge, lining up Christian and his friends in front of the wrecking ball that is Dani’s rage via Harga’s ritualistic midsummer celebration.

Perhaps partially cathartic in channelling some feelings through Dani or partially self-loathing in possibly identifying bits of himself in Christian’s emotional neglect, one cannot guess which angle Aster approached this from him. Either way, one can easily feel the relatability coursing through this emotional chaos. The pain that Dani feels in the beginning, her anxieties and mistrust of Christian set them on the course for destruction. Her self-doubt and insecurity over how much to share with him only furthers their issues, finding her sharing and driving him away while fearing she is doing exactly that. It is only by finally letting him go that she will find any peace - as is suggested to her by a friend - and, when in Rome, why not just do as the Hargans do and partake in their rituals. There is an emotional, painful, and raw core to this film, one where Dani’s every insecurity and feeling is bled out onto film’s narrative and atmosphere as she comes to terms with what must be done. Her heart is figuratively ripped out in this film, having to let go of a man she loves in order to finally find someone who values her beyond her flesh. It is disarming and disorienting, while Florence Pugh’s magnificent performance taps into every feeling. Her pained wails upon observing Christian in mid-ritual with a local Hargan woman, her panic attacks, her crying after the news of her family, her disoriented look as she walks around while high, or her subtle efforts to collect herself while trying to not lose it, are impeccable. She feels so real and tangible, wearing Dani’s every withheld and expression emotion in her eyes. It is the kind of performance that comes around every once in a while, one that strikes the viewer’s core with the vulnerability shown by the actor that leaves an indelible mark after the film ends. Pugh does exactly this and so much more.

The film’s ethereal and operatic score from composer Bobby Krlic is a further highlight, setting the mood wonderfully. Unsettlingly beautiful - matching the mise en scene - the music is a perfect complement to the film’s chaos. It has an otherwordly vibe, one of constant unease as Dani and her friends traverse through this community. It perfectly hints at and builds the film’s more horrific moments, amplifying their impact. The film’s mise en scene, as mentioned, matches the precision and haunting beauty of the score. The frequent birds eye view shots are particularly effective in capturing the artistry of the set, while the precise blocking gives the film a nightmarish quality. It highlights Aster’s considerable attention to detail, ensuring every instrument at his disposal is in harmony with one another. It truly is like watching a visual symphony unfold, complete with every gorgeous movement one would expect.

The film’s cinematography, as a whole, is just as impressive. The work of DP Pawel Pogorzelski and Aster has been compared to Ingmar Bergman in this film. Though that may be due to the fact it is set in Sweden so it makes for an easy comparison, it is easy to see why this has been stated. The evocative use of close-ups and medium shots is very Bergman-esque, diving into the eyes and lines on the faces of characters to express a considerable range of emotion. Pogorzelski and Aster are more daring in spots as well, particularly a great sequence where the camera flips upside down and into a point-of-view shot from a car as it travels to Harga. The distortion of backgrounds as characters become high and/or disoriented is a further highlight, as are the jarring cuts during the film’s more shocking moments (namely the cliff moment). Tracking shots as characters walk around buildings or as the horror at Dani’s family home is revealed are just as striking, possessing a haunting quality about them as Aster slowly pulls around to reveal whatever terror is lurking around the corner.

Through two features, Ari Aster has quickly established himself as a phenomenal director and one of the finest talents of the current generation. How he progresses from here will be interesting to see, but his first two films are pretty much unimpeachable as instant horror classics. Midsommar’s emotional foundation and subtle, but deeply felt terror as it explores this pseudo-revenge plot line gives it uncommon power as it snakes its way into the viewer’s mind. A towering and excellent horror film, Midsommar is both a realization of Aster’s talent and a hint at what is to come.

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