Ari Aster follows up his acclaimed debut “Hereditary” – a Bergman/Cassavetes-esque tale of a family falling apart disguised as a haunted house movie – with an ambitious, but slightly overlong, sophomore horror tale about a group of clueless Americans who get lured in by a cult, although the movie is clearly more interested in the breakup story at its center.
For starters, “Midsommar” doesn’t quite live up Aster’s debut – it’s often quite good, and while never exactly scary, the fact that its horrors all play out in the glaring daylight makes it deeply unsettling. Plus, it’s very well acted, is filled with strong camerawork and features a few memorable set pieces. It also drags slightly in sections, and while specific relationships between the characters are well explored, some of the other characters are underdeveloped.
Much like “Hereditary,” Aster’s latest story is centered around a horrific tragedy. In the opening moments, Dani (Florence Pugh) has received an email from her bipolar sister that appears to hint at a suicide attempt, but also says that she plans to take their parents along with her. Dani is crushed after the worst thing that could happen does, and she falls to pieces. Her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), is aloof and as we find out during a conversation with several of his pals, he was on the verge of dumping Dani, but now sticks with her out of guilt due to her family tragedy. This doesn’t mean, however, that he’s any more emotionally available. Their troubled relationship is the heart of the film.
At a party some months later, Dani is surprised to learn that Christian is planning on taking a trip to Sweden with his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper), party boy Mark (Will Poulter) and a Swede named Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who has invited them to attend a ceremony being carried out in his isolated village. Pelle’s people are known as the Harga, and every 90 years they take part in a ceremony that Christian and his friends expect to include psychedelic drugs and folkloric rituals, but they’re unaware that the festival’s events go much further than that.
Aster’s film, much like his previous one, is seemingly influenced by European cinema of the 1960s and 1970s – Tarkovsky and Bergman, for example – but it also clearly pays homage to the 1973 horror classic “The Wicker Man.” For those familiar with that picture, you’ll remember that it doesn’t turn out too well for the outsider who finds himself in the middle of a pagan ritual.
At two hours and 20 minutes, “Midsommar” is a slow burn. The first quarter of the picture involves Dani’s tragedy and is set amid a snowy backdrop, while the remaining three-quarters of the film are set against the disarmingly bright Swedish backdrop of Pelle’s bucolic Swedish village (the film, however, was shot in Hungary). From the start, something about the place seems off. Villagers are playing flutes and other instruments, everyone is friendly to a fault and from the moment they arrive, the Americans are given a mind-altering drug that results in a bad reaction for Dani.
The scene starts to become intense as the visitors make some faux pas that upset the Harga – Mark urinates on an ancestral tree and Josh takes pictures of an ancient text after being warned against doing so – while a pair of Brits who are guests of another young Swede want to leave after several days there and Christian finds himself the object of attention from a young village woman, who leaves pubic hairs in his food and a ritualistic object under his bed.
The picture’s first horrific moment – and, frankly, it’s the film’s most gruesome set piece – occurs about an hour into the movie. Dani, Christian and his friends witness a ceremony that leaves them deeply unnerved and wanting to leave, prompting Pelle to try to soothe them and convince them to stay.
Other reviews have noted that all hell breaks loose in the film’s final 20 minutes – which involve Dani taking part in a competition to be the May Queen, a hilariously lurid sex scene involving Christian and a bunch of Harga women and the ceremony’s final brutal ritual. For me, the scene an hour into the movie was the most difficult to stomach, although the final ceremony in the film contains a major twist and the film’s final shot is one that’s going to prompt a fair amount of debate.
While “Midsommar” isn’t quite on par with “Hereditary,” it’s still a solid folkloric horror picture with a solid cast – Pugh especially – and a fair amount of ambition. The movie is most intriguing when it explores how people deal with tragedy by throwing themselves into something new, even if it’s reckless, and the picture’s other most interesting component is its breakup story. The combination of his first two films makes Aster one of the most unique filmmakers – along with Jordan Peele – among the current crop of horror movie directors. “Midsommar” requires some patience, but it ultimately pays off.