3.5 out of 5 stars.
In “Midsommar,” very few scenes are set in dark places. The majority of the film takes place in the bright Swedish summer sunshine, as the members of a commune called the Hårga prepare to celebrate the midsummer solstice. But writer and director Ari Aster (Hereditary) finds the terror in this beautiful environment, crafting a story that may not fit neatly into the horror genre, but is built on psychological fear, unease, and the deterioration of relationships.
After suffering a devastating family tragedy, college student Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) finds herself alone in the world, with the exception of her emotionally distant boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). Christian’s Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) invites him and his friends Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper) to the commune he’s from to participate in their midsummer celebration, which only occurs once every 90 years. When Dani finds out about the trip, Christian, feeling bad, invites her along. Everything seems fine at first, but the group’s increasingly strange and eventually deadly rituals create a growing sense of unease among their American visitors.
“Midsommar” is a slow movie, but that isn’t a criticism. The sense of unease for both the characters and the audience builds over time, through music and sound, the weird visuals and dark humor, and through Dani. Pugh’s performance is astounding. Dani is haunted by past events, and her nervous demeanor and wary expression carries over into their trip. On top of that, the bulk of the actual violence occurs offscreen, leading the viewer to suspect what is happening without giving them all of the information, and also making the moments when we do witness more graphic images all the more shocking. But it’s never really scary, and leaves you feeling more curious than scared.
But “Midsommar” finds a lot of humor in those moments of tension. Poulter’s vastly inappropriate Mark provides the most obviously amusing dialogue, but the film also plays a lot of the dark moments for laughs. So many of the characters come off as parodies of reality rather than actually realistic. Aster recognizes the ridiculousness of it all, and knows the audience will too. The tone doesn’t really feel inconsistent though; the humor and horror go hand-in-hand, and just as there is laughter to be found in the dark moments, there are dark moments in the laughter.
Aster’s overall intention for the film is less consistent, however. We see the deterioration of relationships over the course of the film; not just Dani and Christian, but also Christian and Josh, who argue over their competing thesis statements. We also see Dani, who lost her biological family, possibly finding a new one. But the movie also doesn’t spend enough time building up some of these themes. Christian and Dani’s relationship becomes a huge aspect of the movie, but we don’t spend a lot of time with them early in the film, except to learn that Christian wants to break up with her and Dani is afraid she is being too clingy and emotional. The manner in which Aster portrays her at the start of the film is far from feminist, yet they later journey to a commune in which the women appear to be highly valued. Its conflicting messages like these that prevent the film from being truly great, but it’s well on its way there.
The backdrop for this story, as mentioned before, is unique for a psychological horror movie. Horrible things happen in broad sunlight amongst colorful flowers. There are times when the characters take acid, and the visuals become increasingly off-kilter to match their state of mind.
“Midsommar” is a hysterical fever dream, and Aster—who made a bold feature debut with his film “Hereditary” last year—cements his place as one of the most intriguing young filmmakers to watch. The execution of his ideas needs some refining, but his fresh new voice is one worth listening to.
Runtime: 147 minutes. Rated R.
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