Midsommar (2019) Review
Director: Ari Aster
Screenwriter: Ari Aster
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter
Last year, newcomer Ari Aster delivered his debut feature, Hereditary. While the piece was mostly marketed as a horror movie, Aster stated his intention was for the film to be a “family drama”. Despite this, the movie was dark, twisted, disturbing… and pretty awesome. Rather than waste time with cheap jump scares and familiar horror tropes, Aster dove deep in to the psychology of his characters and crafted masterfully unnerving scenes designed to keep us all on the edge of our seats.
A filmmaker’s second movie can be crucial to their career, especially if his or her debut film is successful; was it a fluke, or does the director have true talent? With Midsommar, Aster has scored again, topping his first film with a truly horrific nightmare drenched in sunlight.
At the opening of the film, we are introduced to Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), a young couple on the verge of a break-up; Dani is overbearing, and Christian isn’t willing to put forth the effort. Not helping the matter are Christian’s three friends, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter), who encourage Christian to end things with Dani and move on with his life. Christian doesn’t have much time to think about it; an unspeakable tragedy throws Dani into a spiraling depression, and Christian is just enough of a good guy to stick with her. Out of pity, Christian invites Dani to join him and his three aforementioned friends on a trip to Sweden for the “Midsommar” festival at Pelle’s hometown village.
The awkward dynamic between Dani and Christian’s entourage is painfully clear, and we get the sense that Dani is the one fifth wheeling the trip. Nevertheless, Dani tries to have a good time (with not much success). Early on, Aster does a beautiful job portraying a character attempting to enjoy herself while also battling mental illness. While Christian and his friends enjoy hallucinogenic drugs and the breathtaking Swedish countryside, Dani can’t escape the horrors of recent events, making what should be a relaxing vacation a personal nightmare. And Dani isn’t the only victim of this European trip.
When the crew arrives at Pelle’s “village”, they see it’s more of a large, sunny meadow littered with colorful flowers and a few wooden buildings scattered about. Various patrons of the village, dressed in traditional Swedish garments, can be seen performing dances and rituals throughout the entirety of the film. Every member of the village is soft spoken, and their voices ring kindly into the ears of their guests. Pelle explains to his friends that everyone is part of the family, and they each share a strong bond with one another. The atmosphere is a welcoming environment; everyone eats together at a long table outside, and sleeps together in a large, well kept barn. The older members of the village, referred to as “the elders”, are very receptive of Pelle’s visitors. However, as the customs become increasingly strange, Dani, Christian, and his friends find themselves increasingly uncomfortable. The rising peculiarities and unorthodox practices of the secluded Swedish convent bring tension to the group of American visitors, resulting in secrets and deceit among friends. What starts as a vacation slowly dissolves into a horror story.
Visually, Midsommar is stunning. Floral scenery pairs with sunbathed Swedish pastures for a gorgeous backdrop, contrasting the hellish themes of Aster’s nightmare. There are scenes, mostly when the characters are under the influence of drugs, where the director subtly places imperfections in his imagery to remind his audience that something isn’t quite right. In fact, there is rarely a single frame in which some element isn’t unsettling, whether it’s as indirect as an uneasy glance or as glaring as a splattered human head. Aster’s attention to detail is unparalleled, and if you notice everything, it makes his story all the more terrifying.
In a narrative sense, the first three quarters of Midsommar are near perfect storytelling. As with his visual details, Aster leaves tiny breadcrumbs with his dialogue. Small conflicts are created with the slightest of interactions (another nod to Aster’s attention to detail), leaving us salivating over how each and every struggle will turn out. Yet, for all that Aster sets up, the ending of his film leaves much to be desired. At the risk of allowing loose ends to not be resolved, the director drives the movie into a psychedelic oddity of an ending, sure enough to unsettle even the most iron clad of moviegoers. It would seem such a strange finish would be the perfect way to wrap up a movie with very similar themes, but there are a few payoffs that were avoided by completing the film on such an outlandish note. This isn’t to say Aster was unaware that his decision to end the film this way was a bit odd, but such a technique has become a little too common for my taste in recent horror movies (Hereditary also struggles with this new trope, as well as Robert Eggers’ The Witch and Alex Garland’s Annihilation).
To draw comparisons to Hereditary once again, the characters aren’t quite as strong in Midsommar. Lesser known actors Pugh and Reynor do a great job as the protagonists, but they could never stand up to Gabriel Byrne and the Oscar-snubbed performance of Toni Collette in Aster’s first film. Hereditary dives deeper into the psychology of its main characters, resulting in the avoidance of that static “she’s a goner” personality that has become so common in horror films throughout the years.
Despite a frustrating ending, there is still much to celebrate about Midsommar. Aster has established himself as a promising newcomer, weaving themes of family tragedy and the resulting consequences into his two earliest movies. Midsommar was shot almost exclusively in sunlight, and the ability to turn that type of setting into such a freakish fear-fest takes extreme talent. I eagerly await the third movie from theis hugely ambitious filmmaker.
Written by Samuel Sybert