When I first finished Hereditary, Midsommar writer/director Ari Aster’s first film, I sat through the credits in stunned silence. Then I stared out a midnight window for an hour, wrestling with what I’d seen. I hadn’t ever experienced a film that felt so devastatingly cynical, mean, and gut wrenching. After some determined rumination, I realized that it was a masterpiece. I also never wanted to watch it again. (I ended up watching it three more times.)
Fresh off that experience of terror, I was keen to check out Midsommar, Aster’s sophomore effort, especially considering how visually distinct it looked. A horror movie with a pastoral aesthetic? Flowers? In spooky time? That’s not a creepy doll, it can’t possibly be scary!
Well, reader, Midsommar made me frightened of flowers.
Midsommar’s plot is fairly straightforward; recently shattered by a tragedy, Dani (Florence Pugh) decides to tag along on a vacation/research trip that her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends are going on to a small village/commune in Northern Sweden’s verdant valleys. They start traveling, spooks commence.
It’s important to note that the spooks in Midsommar are unique; far more stressful than frightening. Very rarely did I, or anyone in my audience, jump from fear, or yelp. Instead, I was sweating up a storm for about half of the film’s runtime. And not because I was afraid of something – I was just uncomfortable, and worried. This is large in part thanks to Pugh’s brilliant portrayal of Midsommar’s protagonist, Dani.
Midsommar’s tone frequently mirrors Dani’s emotional state. As the film begins as a tightly wound bundle of stress, so does she. The opening sequence ranks amongst the best openings in recent memory. It’s deeply affecting, channelling Hereditary’s horrific heart. In this way, it functions as a sort of thematic and tonal link between the two films. Hereditary focused on how grief can destroy family. Only Midsommar’s opening resembles this, then it leaps forward in time, asking ‘okay—what if someone can’t get over something? What happens when wounds are kept open?’ Hereditary dwelt inside a wound and picked at it while Midsommar is focused on a past terror, pain that Dani spends the runtime trying to escape. But she can’t. After that opening you’re emotionally exhausted and in the emotional weeds with Dani. Each and every difficulty she faces from then on – whether it comes from her unhelpful boyfriend Christian, one of his friends, or the Swedish culture she’s immersed in – feels sadistic, like salt in an infected wound.
Even a slight inconvenience, like how everyone under thirty-six in this Swedish community shares a large open barn sans privacy, gets under Dani’s, and our own skin. Really? Where is Dani going to cry if she needs too? Why can’t they have privacy? What’s going onnnnn? It doesn’t help that this barn is covered in a disquieting mural depicting various figures and traditions from this community’s belief structure. Midsommar is filled front to back with moments that both confuse and stress, to various degrees. Sometimes this is played for laughs, like when a group of tourists walk past a caged bear, one character asks “So… are we just going to ignore the bear, then?”, to which the local responds incredulously“… it’s a bear?”. Yes but WHY is there a bear in a cage, bro? WHY? Evidently, even the film’s plentiful comedic moments have a lingering anxiety.
Compounding this uneasiness is Midsommar’s consistently trippy and overwhelming visual style. Upon entering the northern forest there’s a particularly cool – yet simple – visual decision that Aster pulls, unsubtly declaring: we’re not in Kansas anymore, y’all! This spins out into various cool and memorable visuals, especially once psychedelic drugs mix with the omnipresent vast and verdant sweeping fields and piles of flowers.
Midsommar’s real meat is Dani and Christian’s complex relationship, and how it plays off this new culture they’ve been inducted into. They both know they need separate things from their relationship and that it’s not working, but they’re unable and unwilling to deal with these problems for various reasons. This flawed co-dependence is more than complex enough to bear the weight of the film’s focus, which it does; Midsommar is as much a relationship drama as it is a horror film.
After Midsommar I didn’t stare out of a window for an hour like I did with Hereditary. However, it has occupied the back of my mind for the better part of a week. It’s equally as affecting, but in a different way.
Hereditary is a film that is never afraid to go from 0 one moment to 1000 the next. It delights in giving the viewer emotional whiplash. Midsommar is a slow boil, worsening by minor degrees until it reaches its utterly depraved destination. It’s been stuck to my brain like gum since I watched it. It’s brutal and sad and also terrific.
Ari Aster, are you okay?