Ari Aster’s debut feature film Hereditary was met with a curiously mixed reception when it was released last year. Combining psychological horror with supernatural suspense to tell the story of a family struggling through a series of traumatic events and anchored by a brilliant central performance from Toni Collette (snubbed at every major awards ceremony but hey, what’s new there?), the film received critical acclaim and raked in an impressive $80 million at the box office to become A24’s most successful film to date.
But the film proved incredibly divisive with audiences, leading to a shockingly low Cinemascore of D+ (ranked on a scale from A+ to F) and renewing a debate around the gap between critics and mainstream audiences. While this has led to a running joke about A24’s horror releases (The Witch and It Comes at Night also garnered high critical praise and low Cinemascores, a C- and D respectively), it also turned the spotlight onto Aster’s new project Midsommar, released only a year after Hereditary and promising another ambitious spin on the horror genre.
And as many predicted, the same pattern has emerged again, perhaps to less of an extent. Rave reviews have once more flooded in and the box office is looking decent, if rather below predictions due to the new Spiderman installment, while the Cinemascore has delivered a C+ (which, while higher than Hereditary and A24’s other horror releases, is still very low, especially when compared with the Rotten Tomatoes score of 83% at time of writing).
The important question though is whether Aster has delivered another stellar piece of horror cinema, one that gradually pieces together an intriguing character study while simultaneously delivering some seriously messed up sequences of emotional and physical gore. The answer, I am excited to report, is a resounding yes… and then some.
The story opens with Dani (Florence Pugh) struggling to cope with the aftermath of a brutal family tragedy while also trying to hold on to her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), who is looking for a way out of their relationship. Cue an invite from their Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to travel to a summer festival celebrated by his remote commune known as the Hårga, with the promise of pagan rituals and white flowing robes aplenty. Initially hoping that this will be his chance to finally flee from Dani, Christian ends up inviting her to join his friends’ trip with a mixture of pity and frustration.
Pugh is exceptional as the central piece to the tale and has rightly drawn a number of comparisons to Toni Collette’s performance in Hereditary, both in terms of her character’s grief-stricken journey and the quality of her performance, Pugh continuing to prove why she is the one to watch in film right now. Reynor is also fantastic as the smug and increasingly punchable Christian, with the rest of the friend group travelling to the festival containing Will Poulter as Mark (consistently excellent ever since his first role in Son of Rambow), William Jackson Harper as Josh (fresh from a standout role in The Good Place) and Blomgren (brilliantly unsettling in his first English language feature film).
The comparison that you will probably have seen most bandied around regarding Midsommar has been to Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, the quintessential 1973 folk horror classic that is rightfully considered one of the best British films to this day. This is understandable, since both films revolve around the inherent creepiness of Pagan imagery and set about building a growing sense of unease in a daylit setting, subverting our normal expectations for horror films to occur in darkness.
But the more obvious similarities that stood out to me while watching Aster’s latest were with Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg’s horror masterpiece that, coincidentally, has just been re-released and was originally shown in a double bill alongside The Wicker Man), and Hereditary, Aster’s previous film (I guess similarities are going to be a given there, but thematically they could almost be considered as companion pieces, something Aster himself has commented on).
All three revolve around central characters struggling to deal with the pains of the grieving process, and the horrific consequences that follow such a struggle, with each film utilising intense horror imagery to symbolise this emotional pain. Aster in fact named Don’t Look Now as one of the key influences on Hereditary and it’s impact on Midsommar is also obvious, no surprise considering Roeg’s film is one of, if not the most powerful depiction of grief and suffering in film to date.
And as with Hereditary, Midsommar again sees Aster ramping up the horror to its full extent. A creeping sense of dread builds as the group enter the festival, set in a seemingly idyllic field that soon becomes the location for a mixture of ritualistic eccentricities and disturbing acts. There is a dual focus on the intoxicating landscape of rich colours and the growing unease that the group begin to feel, with the use of some seriously trippy visuals helping to evoke Dani and co’s drug-tinged journey into the festival.
A particularly stand-out sequence within the final act utilises subtle but spectacular special effects to create swirling backgrounds and faces as Dani and Christian are drawn further and further into the festivities, a perfect example of how Aster so effectively ramps up the suspenseful power and claustrophobic nature of his films through endlessly creative visuals and some seriously brilliant camerawork (including a wonderfully tricky upside down tracking shot during the film’s opening).
Elsewhere, a fantastic cast of Swedish actors bring to life the twisted antics of the festival, trading ominous glances and awkward dialogue to anxiety-inducing effect, while Bobby Krlic (a.k.a British music producer The Haxan Cloak)’s extraordinary soundtrack utilises both diegetic and non-diegetic sound to deliver a mesmerising concoction of sound that balances beauty and pain to strangely intoxicating effect (particular mention to the track “The House that Hårga Built” which accompanies one of the film’s most poignant moments).
But what is most surprising about Midsommar is just how funny it is. There are several laugh-out loud moments scattered throughout the proceedings, with Poulter’s Mark getting a bunch of hilarious lines as the cynical joker of the group. There is also an incredibly bizarre scene later on (without spoiling anything, you probably won’t see another sex scene like it ever again) that served as one of the most oddly cathartic experiences I’ve had in a cinema. Emily Yoshida summed up the film’s perfectly observed moments of bleak comedy better than I ever could in this tweet, and it was this idea of humour being a product of anxiety that was what created this bizarrely liberating moment during our screening.
The crazy thing is that even after finishing this rambling review/mini essay (apologies), I feel like I’m only scraping the surface on what makes Midsommar so effective. I spent most of the journey home thinking of the best tagline for the film: “The ultimate break up movie?” “The biggest bad trip of all time?” “Gaslighting: The Movie?” but they all only hint at small elements in the complex patchwork of the overall piece.
I guess the most important thing to emphasise is that this is not a film about Swedish pagan festivities. Well, I guess it might seem so on the surface. But as we are immersed further and further into the world of the Hårga, Aster peels away the layers of unnerving rituals to reveal an intimate study of grief and toxic relationships that, like Hereditary, proves to be one of the most effective and surprisingly cathartic horror films of the 21st century. Happy Midsommar...