Director Ari Aster has proven himself to be a very fascinating filmmaker and he’s only released two movies to date. Last year he shocked audiences with “Hereditary”, a more creepy than scary horror experience that I enjoyed at the time but needed several rewatches to truly respect. His second feature film, “Midsommar”, intrigued me even more, promising to take viewers into the twisted world of pagan rituals and cultism. “Midsommar” is one of those movies you just know by watching the trailers is not made for mass audiences and, much like “Hereditary”, it seems the goal was not to earn money but rather to earn respect through artistic filmmaking and atmosphere. And that’s just the trailer mind you. As he did with “Hereditary”, Aster wrote and directed this attempt at a modern horror masterpiece and I was more than happy to give it a try myself and see if I could respect his newest film the first time around the same way I should have respected “Hereditary”. Is “Midsommar” another home run from this up-and-coming master of modern horror or does it prove Ari Aster a one-hit wonder? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Midsommar”.
“Midsommar” follows anxiety-afflicted college student Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) who suffers a family tragedy. She leans on her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) for emotional support but, unbeknownst to her, Christian has been seeking a way out of the relationship but chooses to remain with Dani to avoid adding another layer to a dark time in her life. Christian is an anthropology major seeking a subject for his thesis and decides to join his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) on a trip to Sweden with their classmate Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) who promises to take them to his ancestral commune as they hold a rare summer festival that only occurs every 90 years. Christian decides to invite Dani along to help her with her anxiety. After the friends arrive they find it difficult to acclimate to the strange and eccentric lifestyles of the commune although Josh and Christian decide to use the visit as the source of their thesis, deciding to study the commune’s culture. Meanwhile, Christian and Dani’s relationship is tested to the limit as they grow farther apart. Eventually, the group bears witness to a series of questionable traditions for the 90-year festival. The friends soon discover there is much more to the commune than meets the eye and they have found themselves in the middle of a potentially deadly tradition they may not be able to escape.
“Midsommar” is a very interesting film. Ari Aster is a masterful filmmaker as he proved with only one movie in “Hereditary”. “Midsommar” is a perfect follow up not only depending on a similar format as its predecessor but proving to be much more unsettling and creepier in the process. It also establishes a specific style for Aster which I’ll discuss later, for better or worse. I knew going into this movie that I needed to be prepared for some odd, graphic, and even possibly confusing details and I got exactly what I expected and wanted frankly. “Midsommar” is downright unsettling and that’s where it finds its horror footing. Aster’s work is clearly not meant to be necessarily scary. It’s meant to make you cringe and to spook you not with jump scares but with imagery and an ability to cut right to the heart of a situation and capture some of the most traumatic realities people face in the real world. “Midsommar” isn’t just another cultist film, although it does follow a lot of conventions which, again, I’ll discuss later. From start to finish this movie is designed to make you feel uncomfortable and unnerved while also providing a spectacular setup that gives the story much more depth than your average horror film.
Let’s start there shall we. Probably my favorite part of this movie is just how brutally honest the acting and storytelling is especially when it comes to mental illness and emotion. Ari Aster did a fantastic job helping his actors capture the humanity and emotional turmoil in his previous movie, but here it’s more than just sadness and loss. A driving aspect of the story is the anxiety and depression of star Florence Pugh’s character Dani Ardor. Pugh is a powerhouse in this film presenting an absolutely perfect representation of a woman, hell a person in general, dealing with clinical anxiety and depression especially in the face of a massive tragedy. As someone who has dealt with these emotions in my own life, I couldn’t believe how accurate this performance was in capturing the sheer terror that lies within a person’s own mind when it comes to the world around them. Pugh is absolutely amazing in this movie and keeps her performance in check the entire film. Even when things go her way you can always tell there’s an insecurity in Dani’s positivity making the one time she truly smiles in the movie all the more important especially considering what she’s smiling about. The first fifteen minutes set the standard for the emotional complexity of the story and the characters especially when Dani has to deal with her boyfriend Christian, played very well by Jack Reynor, who has become distant as her only source of comfort after a tragic loss. This relationship becomes a primary driver for the main story of the film and provides a pitch-perfect look at a failing relationship and the complex juggling of priorities and emotional stability that goes into managing such a partnership. Its extremely rare that you see this kind of humanity in horror movie characters and Aster has managed to do this twice now.
Looking at the bigger picture “Midsommar” is an outstanding piece of modern cinema. Its settings and cinematography are beautifully crafted and planned to add to the insecurity the viewer is meant to feel as they experience the story. The backdrops and even the use of mostly daytime scenes make everything feel bright and welcoming, and yet we, nor the characters, ever feel very secure. In addition, many elements are meant to evoke a drug trip-like effect which makes sense given the number of hallucinogens the main characters ingest in the film. Little details like heatwave effects (as shown above) and upside down camera shots help create disorientation in the viewer and cause us to question, along with the characters, what’s real, what’s not and what’s going on. Once the film made its way to the commune I found myself completely on edge almost the whole time. I could feel the insecurity of the characters, the strangeness of their surroundings, the foreboding of something sinister. Everything just seems to jump off the screen and it kept me fully invested in what was going to happen next. The fact that “Midsommar” is carefully planned and paced to show the audience what they need to see, when and for how long really gives it a pure artistic quality. Like its predecessor, this is a film that was made with care but unlike “Hereditary” it’s near 2 ½ hour run time never feels as long as it is. The story plays out smoothly, there’s always something to pay attention to, and you’re always curious about how one event will play into the larger story by the end of it. “Midsommar” also isn’t afraid to share some extremely graphic visuals, from full frontal nudity to heads being smashed in, giving it that added sense of realism that helps give weight to every action or event taking place. Nothing feels phoned in, nothing feels over the top, and while some aspects might seem odd for the sake of being odd that adds to the picture’s charm because this serves as a constant reminder to the viewer that they’re never getting the full picture…thus once again keeping you on edge.
But that brings me around to an important realization this film has given me about its director. After only two films Ari Aster has established himself as a powerhouse and uncompromising filmmaker. I’ve spent a lot of this review comparing “Midsommar” to “Hereditary” and there is a reason for that. Many of the same themes and visuals are shared between the films and together they establish a very clear style that Aster seems all too content leaning on for the time being. Just a few similarities of note: emotional strife caused by a personal loss that drives the narrative, the use of cults as a main source of the terror, head injuries or decapitation, full frontal male and female nudity, and ritualistic sacrifice. One could say these films are the same movie with different coats of paint if their stories weren’t so different. When it comes to “Midsommar” Ashter hasn’t done enough to make these aspects true clichés of his work yet, but there’s no denying the potential copy and paste approach he seems to have employed with this film in terms of the basic idea of the story. I still submit that in my opinion “Midsommar” used the theme to much greater effect and serves as the more frightening film than its predecessor.
It’s also hard to overlook the familiarity of this film when compared to other cultist features specifically films like “Wicker Man” and “The Sacrament” which embraced a similar approach of trying to unnerve viewers by doing more with less, saving the realities for the latter half of the films where it’s too late for both the characters and the viewers to escape the horror. But, again, we have a scenario where “Midsommar” challenges its derivative nature and proves to be an improvement on the formula. It takes these ideas and not only improves on them but proves to be much better at adapting these concepts than many features before it. The subtle and not-so-subtle nods to cultist films of the past actually make “Midsommar” that much more fun a viewing experience when you realize that it’s not just simply copying other movies, it’s handling the ideas much better and in a more ominous and effective manner. Some might scoff at this film as a slog filled with stolen ideas, but doesn’t that represent every Hollywood film these days? If you’re going to borrow from other properties, even shamelessly, if you can prove yourself either superior or equal and build on the idea then you become the standard bearer and that’s exactly what “Midsommar” accomplishes.
“Midsommar” to me might not necessarily be a masterpiece but it’s an incredible film all the same. Ari Aster is an amazing filmmaker who sees his visions through and commits to bringing his stories of more grounded fear to life. “Midsommar” is meant to be uncomfortable and put the viewer on edge to help them relate to the terror the characters feel in the moment. That to me is true horror and few directors have been able to capture that effect like Ashter in only two movies. But beyond the fear, thanks to incredible acting and patient storytelling “Midsommar” is also an awesome representation of the negative effects of a toxic relationship and anxiety, especially on the human psyche, and the extremes that mental illness can reach, not to mention how these disorders can play into the cult mentality. “Midsommar” overpowers nearly all of its clichés and borrowed story elements to prove to the world that even old ideas can be done even better if approached with a certain amount of commitment and respect. I know quite a few people who would disagree with me that this film is an improvement on Aster’s already incredible “Hereditary”, but as a viewer, I felt more engaged and more frightened by what this feature had to offer and it proved to be more thought-provoking as well. But even without comparing it to its sister film, “Midsommar” is an incredible effort that tries hard to be everything it needs to be to sell its concept, characters, and story making it one of the year’s most engrossing horror pictures and one of the greatest cultist films of all time. It might rub some people the wrong way, but if you go in with an open mind it’s a journey certainly worth taking.