David Lynch once said that “a story can be both concrete and abstract”. Over the past decade, arthouse horror has prospered by modestly accelerating away from the concrete and towards the abstract, resulting in terrifying cinematic nightmares centered around issues of grief, trauma, sexuality, and paranoia. Ari Aster has rapidly made a name for himself within this new wave of horror, entering the scene in 2018 with the astoundingly frightening Hereditary, a supernatural slowburn that set itself above the likes of other arthouse favorites like It Follows and The Babadook by refusing to drape its message in easy metaphor. Unlike most other films in this new canon of horror, Hereditary didn’t coat its scares with overt symbolism, using its satanic cult horror instead as a tumorous outgrowth of its toxic relationships, an expressionist portrait of a family imploding under the pressures of grief.
Ari Aster returns only a year later with Midsommar, a marvelous, flawed masterpiece of a follow-up that serves in many ways as a mirror image to his terrifying directorial debut. Although Midsommar differs vastly in tone and locale- trading in the shadowy claustrophobia of a doomed family’s haunted house for the agoraphobic fields of rural Sweden- the film retains much of the patient style and bold storytelling that made its predecessor so memorable. Beginning in a situation so cosmically cruel it would make the darkest moments of Hereditary blush, Midsommar follows Dani (Florence Pugh), a young woman on the edge of being dumped by her distant boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) when family tragedy arises. Spoiling the rapturous specifics of the film’s prologue would ruin its sick fun, but rest assured that it contains some of the ugliest imagery and meanest direction you’ll see all year. It’s a lengthy introduction, but it establishes the mood perfectly, birthing Midsommar in a calamitous nightmare so intense that the rest of the film is a welcome breath of fresh (Swedish) air.
Some time passes, just enough for Dani’s first wave of tears to be replaced with numb depression. At a party, she learns secondhand that Christian has been planning to go on a graduate research trip-vacation with his peers Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) to their Swedish friend Pelle’s (Vilhelm Blomgren) secluded hometown for a rare, nine-day festival. It’s likely that Christian hoped Dani finding out would lead to the break-up he’s too uncomfortable to initiate, so he invites her along at the last minute in the expectation that she’ll angrily decline and end their relationship. Instead, she agrees to join them, much to the varying chagrin of Christian’s friends.
When the five of them arrive in Pelle’s hometown, Midsommar slows down substantially, settling into a patient atmosphere of disquiet that- like its omnipresent daylight- never seems to cease. The film is never outright scary, unlike Hereditary, and its leisurely pace may frustrate those looking for more memorable, high-octane scares. A great deal of its runtime is instead comprised of anxious anticipation, watching every mundane, tedious detail of the town’s absurd rituals play out; it’s absolutely enthralling, even if nothing of substance feels like it’s happening.
Much of that is owed to the impeccable sensibilities of Aster’s cinematographer, Pawel Pogorzelski (also the D.P. behind Hereditary), whose lucid pans and zooms across the fantastical Swedish village evoke an agoraphobic sense of dread. The floral color palette pops with garish unease, almost Oz-like in its psychedelic persistence, and the film’s blinding daylight only becomes more insidiously overexposed as Christian’s friends start disappearing. Also of note is the film’s astonishing score by Bobby Krlic (better known by his stage name ‘The Haxan Cloak’), which brilliantly blends folk music, ambience, and dissonance into haunting explosions of anxiety and melancholy. It’s the first great film score of 2019, one that attentively follows Dani all the way to the very end, transforming alongside her into something new and exciting.
As Midsommar’s central disintegrating couple, Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor are both phenomenal, especially the former, who channels Dani’s anxious clinginess to Christian and her barely-suppressed grief with palpable ease. We understand where she’s at every step of the way, from her first scenes of ugly, traumatized weeping to her final haunting smile of acceptance. At times, her crumbling relationship with Christian becomes subsumed by the pure spectacle of the rituals on display, but if you look closely you’ll see the state of their relationship represented in physical space- as their literal distance expands, so does the emotional chasm opening up between them.
At its heart, Midsommar is “a breakup movie dressed in the clothes of a folk horror film”, as Aster himself puts it. Not only are its scares remarkably scarce, they feel irrelevant to the relationship falling apart around them. The film’s bizarre rituals, which take up so much of the runtime, border on pure nonsense- they’re not the point at all. They merely serve as fuel for Dani’s growing bitterness and melancholy, emphasizing her isolated despair and distorting our own bearing on time. When her inevitable separation with Christian does come (if you can even call it that), it arrives in a satisfying finale of cathartic closure. Born in the darkness of an unthinkable nightmare and ending in the satisfaction of moving on, Midsommar is a beautiful marriage of perversity and pathos, confirming Ari Aster as one of the few working directors with a real grasp on the profound power of horror. Like many sophomore features, Midsommar is imperfect, overly ambitious, and decidedly not for everyone. Nevertheless, I watched it twice, and both times reaffirmed why I fell in love with movies in the first place.