What is the scariest thing you can imagine? Monsters? Possession? Killers on the loose? There are many effective horror movies that play on these very fears. However, it is clear from the dawning oeuvre of director and screenwriter Ari Aster that these are but budding shoots wriggling up from the fertile soil of ‘the unknown’. Midsommar, Aster’s follow up to his chilling debut feature-length, Hereditary, furthers his approach that nothing can be more frightening than not knowing what dangers await you.
Psychology student Dani (Florence Pugh, The Wonder) is burdened, and boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is disinclined to unburden her. Whilst she worries about seeming too clingy, he is weakly trying to find a way to end things so he can join his fellow cultural anthropology students on a trip to Sweden as a single man. Pelle, a fellow student whose home is a remote commune in rural Sweden, has invited them to attend a once in every 90 years midsummer celebration so that Josh (William Jackson Harper) can write his doctoral thesis on the event.
The ingredients are there from the get-go. Remote commune. Bemused foreigners unsure of what constitutes a cultural norm, or what is plain messed up by anyone’s definition. A whole community united in purpose. Putting the carcass together by its labelled body parts, Midsommar gives you all you could want from a ‘folk horror’ movie. Yet, as with Hereditary, the creeping unease dances hand in hand with the tone that Aster’s direction proffers up in cupped hands.
Central to the movie is Dani and Christian’s relationship, or lack thereof. This is not to say there are big scenes where they discuss their feelings. Far from it. Our sympathies are with Dani as she doubts herself for expecting even the bare minimum, and backs off in the face of Christian’s half-hearted gaslighting. He drifts through the movie as if consequences are something that happens to other people. They do, of course. They happen to Dani.
I said before that Aster’s direction was an exercise in tone. Midsommar has long sections with limited dialogue, often relying on the ingestion of hallucinogens to allow distorted or confusing camera work. Combined with the famous Swedish ‘never setting’ midsummer sun, such sections draw out the timeline to confuse and disorient. How long we actually spend here is unclear. Long enough, it seems, that our characters get over the deeply unpleasant ritual surrounding those who reach the age of 72.
At 141 minutes there are certainly scenes that could have done with a trim, although it is arguable to what extent the ever-important mood would have been damaged. The final 20 minutes or so are a mostly wordless affair that rely on an escalation of already drawn out unsettling behaviour. The commune appears inexplicably in tune with each other’s emotions to the extent that at times they will scream, laugh, cry, or moan as one. I am not a film editor and cannot say with certainty if chopping up the extended examples of this would really hurt the sensation of itchy disquiet such occurrences elicit, but a viewer glancing at the clock mid-scene is not a desirable result for any filmmaker.
Midsommar is distinctly the work of a director who was universally lauded for his debut feature-length movie and has been given licence to do as he pleases in this sophomore production. The result is something both elevated but also hindered by its ambition. Given the choice of the two, it’s likely that Hereditary would get rewatched more often because that movie achieved the same crawling tension but within a leaner, more focused vessel. Midsommar, with its limited setting but extended sequences, pushes such a technique to its limits. Yet extending itself is vindicated by a jaw-dropping final act where everything retracts back to compress into a pure and shining core.
Whatever your take on Midsommar’s themes, the skill from everyone involved is undeniable. There’s a reason why Pugh’s Dani has become the darling of endless podcasts and think pieces. She embodies several classic young leading woman horror tropes, yet the ceremonial flower headdress sits unexpectedly comfortable on her head. With no la petit mort of nocturnal release, Midsommar’s horizon skimming daylight gives you all you can bear and does so with a smile on its face.
Word by Mike Record