Horror has a new name, and that name is Ari Aster. After possessing the minds of Sundance-goers with his unsettling directorial debut Hereditary in 2018, the auteur’s breakout hit enjoyed a wide release under A24 and turned out to be the most profitable release ever under the label. Now only one year later, A24 is banking on the director once again to disturb viewers with Midsommar, Aster’s horrific follow-up centered on a Swedish Pagan death cult. Midsommar definitely isn’t for everyone, but it’s a magnificent and refined piece of distressing cinema, and further evidence the genre has a new king.
Unleashed to unsuspecting theater patrons in June of last year, Hereditary shunned popular horror conventions in favor of scares that were more psychological in nature. While there were still instances of common genre tropes such as Ouija boards and demonic possession, they were present in a script that was deeply rooted in everyday fears of the subconscious, including fractured family dynamics, dark secrets and self-loathing. Combined with meticulous set design and an Oscar-caliber performance from Toni Collette, Hereditary was a horror film for the ages.
I was hesitant to say it at the time, but Hereditary was a masterpiece, and was on par with genre bests including The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. Now Aster is back with a follow-up that, dare I say, is in some ways even better, with a brand new hell-ride that both draws influence from, and even matches the achievements of another of horror’s greatest works, Robin Hardy’s shocking 1973 classic The Wicker Man. With no shortage of graphic imagery, Midsommar’s most effective chills don’t come from gore, and they’re sure to infect your psyche long after the credits roll.
Aster’s sophomore effort opens on an ominous view of a broad illustration depicting various spiritual traditions of centuries-old European mysticism. Set to eerie folk music, we see several gorgeous, yet foreboding aerial shots of Swedish forestry before we are introduced to Dani (Florence Pugh) and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). Dani has been having a hard time dealing with her bipolar sister, and she feels she’s been leaning too heavily on Christian for support. Christian wouldn’t admit this, but he agrees, and is debating on ending the relationship.
Tragedy strikes when Dani’s sister takes her own life, taking her parents with her via carbon monoxide poisoning using the family vehicle. Seeing Dani in agonizing grief, Christian is in no place to break up with her. When Dani catches wind that Christian has been invited by his friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to travel to Sweden to observe a rare celebration of the summer solstice, he begrudgingly invites her along. Dani welcomes the needed distraction, but she and the rest of the group are deeply unaware of the religious practices they’re about to be forced into.
The film is already crushingly bleak as soon as the unimaginable events that occur with Dani’s family, forcing us to inescapably share the girl’s grief and despair. It follows that the prospect of an outing in beautiful Sweden sounds deceptively comforting. That certainly appears to be the case as soon as we arrive at the untouched grasslands of the commune and Pelle introduces us to his airy brother and friends, garbed in white frocks and high on mushroom tea. Even when Pelle warns the group not to enter the mysterious temple, we want to believe this is a safe place.
But things are about to turn from pleasant and inviting to an absolute nightmare. Without ever clearly invoking the supernatural as in his previous film, Aster depicts with no respite, the sinister, yet factually-inspired horrors of superstition. Through the eyes of Dani and the rest of her group, we are gradually immersed into the world of the revolting religious practices of radical Paganism. And the most ghastly thing of all is that these aren’t terrors brought on by ghosts, demons or monsters. These are simply ordinary people ruled by noxious ideology.
It’s an abominable concept, and the appalling truth from which we can’t hide is that this can, and does, exist in our world. It’s a more effective approach than Hereditary, which relied more on the spookiness of traditional horror fare that doesn’t demonstrably exist in true reality. It’s an aim parallel to that of The Wicker Man, which some are arguing undermines this film’s originality, but though The Wicker Man is still a towering classic to which Aster owes credit, Midsommar takes the intentions of that film and transports them to an entirely new plane of delicate artistry.
While The Wicker Man was designed as a functional freak show-tour with fish-out-of-water Sergeant Neil’s jaw hitting the floor at every turn, Midsommar seductively entices us into craving the sense of belonging this tranquil and homey little group appears to promise. This is powered by the foundation of Dani’s immense and understandable sense of grief, and is further rounded out by being offset with the observable deterioration of the couple’s relationship. In line with the theme of the power of belief, someone is about to undergo a profound transformation.
And if this disquieting premise wasn’t enough on its own, it’s heightened by Aster’s inventive use of sunlight, demonstrating a whole new realm of possibility for the genre. Eerily enough, the sun doesn’t set in Sweden during the summer, trapping our characters in one ceaseless session of blinding, unremitting natural light. Added to this is Aster’s effective use of cinematography to simulate the terrifying sense of panic in our characters pressured into strong hallucinogenics, isolated on a remote, rural commune from which the aid of society is out of the question.
Following Toni Collette’s unforgettable performance as Hereditary‘s tortured mother in crisis, Florence Pugh is a definitive tour-de-force as Midsommar‘s grief-stricken and depressed Dani. Along with Jack Reynor’s untrustworthy Christian, the cast is further embellished by Vilhelm Blomgren’s beguilingly amicable and serene Pelle, and William Jackson Harper as the perilously inquisitive graduate student Josh. And you might be amazed to to hear that in a film as grim as this that there is some acutely effective comic relief, and that’s mainly thanks to Will Poulter.
You will be deeply unsettled and possibly traumatized by your first viewing, but Midsommar is a ruthlessly effective probing into the ramifications of mysticism, with an authentic exploration of breakups to boot. I’ll praise Hereditary all day long, but it’s hybrid between family tragedy and demonic conspiracy makes less sense on its face than does the relationship troubles between Dani and Christian set against the backdrop of Pagan ritual seen here. Be warned: Midsommar is a merciless watch, but if you want to see a virtuoso at the top of his craft, you won’t want to miss it.
A24, Square Peg, B-Reel Films.
Directed by Ari Aster.
Written by Ari Aster.
Starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, and Will Poulter.
Released July 3, 2019.