Ari Aster’s followup to Hereditary is a sun-dappled nightmare that finds liberation amongst the flames.
I’ve never been a fan of the phrase ‘elevated horror,’ that trendy new signifier for horror films that people who normally look down on the genre actually like; it’s a nifty way to make them feel better about their tastes while also throwing shade at a classification of film they find juvenile or worthless. The VVitch, Get Out, and Us are all frequently-cited examples of the trend, but the grandmama of them all was Ari Aster‘s spellbinding Hereditary, a two-hour family tragedy that used the signposts of horror while affecting the typical arthouse trappings — slow, deliberate pacing, impeccably designed cinematography — A24 is well known for.
Aster’s followup, Midsommar, is much less overtly horrific: there are fewer bumps in the night, and its primary events take place in broad daylight. But by its closing minutes, it digs its claws into you and offers up a deeper, more dissociative horror than its predecessor, even as it shares some of that film’s weaknesses.
Like Hereditary, Midsommar kicks off with the destruction of a family — before the opening credits roll, Dani (Florence Pugh) is already thrown into the white-hot pain of grief after her sister, in the throes of a bipolar episode, suffocates herself and her parents. Her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), immensely emotionally unavailable even prior to this tragedy, is still guardedly disinterested in her. He views her as needy, feeling trapped in a relationship out of obligation, much to the chagrin of his grad student friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter).
But when their Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) invites them to attend the Midsommar festivities of the small rural commune in which he grew up, Christian begrudgingly drags Dani along for the ride, hoping it’ll help clear her mind. However, beneath the smiling dispositions and ancient rituals of the villagers lies something sinister, as the true nature of the 90-year festival becomes clearer.
There’s an opaqueness, a dreamlike inscrutability to Aster’s formalism that pervades both Hereditary and Midsommar. For all of its two hours and twenty-some minutes, Midsommar‘s slowly canting cameras and dissonant score (courtesy of The Haxan Cloak himself, Bobby Krlic) keep you as disoriented as its bewildered Americans amidst the villagers’ blissed-out denizens. The rich, verdant valley of the film’s setting bathes its characters in eerily perpetual daylight; the sun hardly ever sets, and even then, the best it can manage is a couple of hours of dusk. Characters take folk-remedy hallucinogens and mushroom teas that cause the world to undulate around them, a subtle effect that never overplays its hand but makes you feel slightly dissociated yourself. Unlike Paimon’s gang in Hereditary, this village conducts its business in the bold light of day, ironically making them feel all the more unstoppable.
Aster seems to make films in which the end of the world might just come as a comfort, as something to be celebrated.
Obviously, there are shades of ’70s horror woven into the wicker and vines of Midsommar, with The Wicker Man being its closest parallel. Buildings are scrawled with ornate folk-art rituals for fertility and sacrifice, and little clues here and there warn us of a sinister mood the villagers haven’t shown us yet. But there’s also something innately modern about the film’s thematic underpinnings, an argument that the strange village they inhabit — one in which elders perform ritual suicide at 72 and mating patterns are carefully documented and arranged — is a welcome respite from the nihilistic horrors of the everyday world.
This is most clearly seen in Dani’s character, a woman constantly gaslight and patronized by her male peers (especially her passive-aggressive boyfriend), whose apparent emotional neediness and outbursts of anguish may well fit better into the cultish rituals of the village. The villagers act as one, a symbiotic mass of people for whom crying, breathing and moaning in ecstasy is a communal gesture. It’s an eerie sight to see a mass of women surrounding a wailing Dani, only to match her intense cries — an overwhelming gesture of empathy as uncanny as it is oddly cathartic to watch. Death cult or no, this is a group of people in sync with one another, bereft of the infighting and dishonesty that plagues our American heroes.
Pugh is fantastic here, her Dani a deep well of grief hidden behind the comforting niceties of polite society; Reynor’s also interesting, perfectly calibrating Christian into someone whose sociopathy doesn’t really bother him. The two are terrible together from the get-go, and their constant excuse-making is merely delaying the inevitable. Aster has described this film as “a breakup movie dressed in the clothes of a folk horror film,” which is certainly accurate: At its heart, Midsommar tells the tale of a woman breaking free of a toxically codependent relationship and processing unimaginable grief. There’s just a lot more witchcraft involved, that’s all.
Honestly, between the shocking, dissociative endings of Hereditary and Midsommar, it’s clear that Aster likes to make films in which the end of the world might just come as a comfort, as something to be celebrated. By the time our characters arrive, we know how the story will unfold: no one’s making it out of this festival alive or unchanged by their experience. But the slow burn of it all — letting the audience swim in the discomfort of its American protagonists, lingering on every impeccably-designed bit of pagan art or runic testimony — lulls you into the same kind of hallucinogenic daze as its leads, until the hammer falls in its final twenty minutes. By then, it feels too late to save anyone. And yet, in its final moments, Midsommar‘s worst nightmares become liberating.
Midsommar invites you to a pleasant weekend in the Swedish countryside on July 3.