Fans of Ari Aster’s instant-classic horror movie Hereditary will recognize a similar framework in the writer-director’s sophomoric film, Midsommar. Although Midsommar has more in common with the thriller and mystery genres, Aster’s imprint is as clear as a sunny Scandinavian day. What Midsommar lacks in scares, it makes up in genuine laughs, captivating lore, and haunting imagery.
Dani (Florence Pugh), a college student, is struggling with her relationship with her boyfriend, graduate student Christian (Jack Reynor), when a (truly shocking) family tragedy upends her life. Christian, who was planning to break up with Dani prior to the tragedy, is forced to help mend her broken psyche. He begrudgingly invites her on a trip to Sweden with his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper), Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), and Mark (Will Poulter), who, with the exception of Pelle, aren’t thrilled about her inclusion.
Pelle recruited the group to Sweden to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime festival taking place in his home village. Josh plans to document the cultural ceremony for his thesis. As the festival kicks off and a cocktail of drugs take hold, the trip’s pleasant facade slowly fades away and its Swedish hosts prove inhospitable.
Aster is a visual director with a terror-inducing aesthetic panache, but two films in, he’s already created lasting movie memories harnessing another sense: hearing. The gentle pops of a clicking tongue or the sudden crack of a head being decapitated from its body in Hereditary; the subdued thump of a mallet on rock or the harrowing wails of a broken person in Midsommar, Aster has crafted a half-dozen disquieting sights and sounds that will stick with me for a lifetime.
Midsommar’s 147-minute runtime is an outlier for the horror (and horror-adjacent) genre, but it makes good use of the time. The film’s unbroken stream of lore makes the two and a half-hours breeze by and set it up for repeat viewings. Aster’s phenomenal ability to scatter breadcrumbs to the film’s ending even in its opening scenes only helps its rewatchability.
The pagan lore is explored through exposition, actions, and most notably, set design. Midsommar’s production designers built the festival village from scratch outside of Budapest, Hungary (tricky Hollywood). Their work is evident in the elaborate banquet tables, unique festival relics, and intricately carved and painted pictorials that are scribbled in sacred texts, adorn costumes, and blanket walls. The festival mythology isn’t spoken so much as it is used to frame every shot. From the time Dani enters the festival, to when the credits roll, the beliefs and customs that surround her are presented as ambiance.
The film does well to establish its setting, but it leaves several threads, including a few drug-laced cords, dangling. This could be by design, leaving you to fill in the gaps with your imagination, but it felt sloppy to me. It’s easy to foresee these elements covered in a three-hour-plus director’s cut down the line.
On the subject of drugs, Aster attempts numerous paranoid trip scenes throughout Midsommar, but none of which land as desired. Cinema has been chasing Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill’s quaalude adventure since The Wolf of Wall Street was released six years ago.
Acid-related activities aside, the film’s five leads are brilliant, each successfully conveying the distinct European nightmare being experienced by their character. It’s Pugh’s movie, though, and it can’t work without her. Fans of Lady Macbeth and Park-chan Wook’s Little Drummer Girl miniseries (raises hand) will hope that Pugh is able to breakthrough with this role. If not, Marvel’s Black Widow (2020), in which Pugh has a starring role, should be enough.
As with Hereditary, Midsommar feels like three distinctive films tied together by a single group of people. A haunting family tragedy precedes a horror movie and concludes with an unexpected, outrageous turn. Midsommar’s final act is so unconventional and reprobate that it will make you squirm in discomfort. It’s okay to laugh. Midsommar is a breakup movie that borders on insane wish-fulfillment.
Whether you describe Midsommar as an unsettling story about relationships, a sex-motivated fairy tale, or a stylish, drug-addled vacation, you’ll almost certainly describe it as one of the best films of 2019.