From the opening moments, it is clear that Ari Aster’s Midsommar is not messing around. What becomes increasingly clear though is that he’s also not entirely in love with making you feel despair – even if he’s damn good at it. As we watch pagan rituals in broad daylight and characters trip on all of the hallucinogenics offered to them, Hereditary starts seeming more and more of a companion piece than an antithesis. That’s because this movie isn’t about wallowing in the darkness. Instead, Midsommar celebrates life and death in equal measure. Despite its extreme imagery and attempts to shock audiences, it is a comparably less terrifying and more life-affirming take on grief and death.
Unfortunately, it is also painstakingly clear that Ari Aster’s greatest strength is used in short supply here. The opening scenes before we head off to our vacation in the sun are some of the darkest and most gripping sequences in the film. We’re introduced to Dani (Florence Pugh) as she tries to figure out what has happened to the rest of her family after discovering a foreboding message. Needless to say, bad things have happened and while she wrestles with that, her relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor) seems primed to implode. Out of guilt, Christian invites Dani along to a festival in Sweden that his friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) has invited him and other colleagues to join.
What’s most interesting, though not exactly as effective, is how Ari Aster drags characters out into the light. What might seem like a gimmick or a reaction to the darkness of Hereditary comes off as a genuinely new perspective on the grieving process. Instead of characters being locked in their rooms for days, suffering from internal guilt, they’re forced to interact with others and are pulled completely out of their comfort zone. There are no places to hide that seem familiar, and nowhere that feels safe. It also means that the film can bring to the forefront the thoughts that we relegated to the darkest recesses of our mind. From sexual temptation to the harsh realities of death, there’s a reason that it feels like Midsommar is trying to provoke a reaction out of its audience – we typically don’t see the morbid and perverse outside of the shadows.
And I would be remiss to not single out the incredible performance by Florence Pugh. She gives it her all in a movie that is intended to leave her emotionally bare. Her character goes through the grieving process and it’s not always clear what the narrative wants from her, but it is almost always obvious by Pugh’s emotional intensity. She’s already made it known how incredibly powerful of an actress she can be, but it’s also incredible to see this endearing vulnerability. It’s the kind of performance that horror fans will adore and champion come year’s end, much in the way Toni Collette’s Hereditary turn was heralded.
The stuff that didn’t really work for with Hereditary – the stuff that seemed to specifically lean on horror tropes – is here in excess. The Midsommar festival at the focal point of the film is not only described in great detail as it goes on but also outlined and foretold before it even really gets underway. It doesn’t hurt the film to be so meticulously detailed (that attention to detail worked perfectly with Hereditary), but scenes often feel like they’re dragging out past their breaking point – not too far past, but enough times it becomes noticeable. That languid pacing is only helped by its occasional levity.
Midsommar isn’t really a comedy, but by forcing us to see everything that is happening, it is comforting for it to have as many laughs as it does. Will Poulter pretty much only exists as comedic relief, and he’s really good at it. If you’re starting to feel uncomfortable, you’re probably not alone and that’s when Ari Aster shows off his darker humor in spades. That’s not to say it all lands and some of it is actually at odds with the vibes being put off by the scene. It’s that looseness with the humor that fits well though with Midsommar’s generally emotional demeanor. Characters will scream and cry in equal measure, with the only thing breaking the uncomfortable silence in the audience being the jokes.
Some of those jokes come in the form of visual gags, but what stands out most visually is when the film treads deeply in its psychedelic properties. When Dani reluctantly takes mushrooms, it’s a nightmare waiting to happen. And characters are often on something hallucinogenic, and instead of having to watch characters lose themselves to the vibrations of the Earth, Ari Aster brings the viewer along for the journey. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski once again re-teams up with his Hereditary director to give an impressive feast for the eyes. Combined with excellent production design and costumes, it is clear that craftsmanship is perfectly tied to Midsommar’s DNA.
There’s so much here for horror fans to enjoy and it’s not surprising that Ari Aster returned to the concept of grief for his sophomore film. What’s most shocking and tantalizing is the weird way he embraces it. Midsommar’s pacing issues and attempts to shock are made up for in why they exist. It’s a movie that wants to let you know that it is possible to move on from death, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing to wallow. But there is something to celebrate in life itself. If Hereditary was Ari Aster’s waking nightmare, this is his horrifying daydream. And one that will stay with you once you fall asleep.