After the success of his directorial debut, last year’s defining horror film “Hereditary,” there’s almost impossibly high expectations swirling around writer/director Ari Aster’s sophomore feature, “Midsommar.” With this kind of anticipation, what other choice does Aster have than simply to defy expectations?
Where there was dark, now there is light. “Midsommar” is set in the land of the midnight sun at a Swedish midsommar festival celebrating the summer solstice, where the sun rarely (if ever) sets. The setting primes us to expect the unexpected, but one thing’s for certain when it comes to Aster: Always expect to be disturbed, defiled and maybe even delighted. You’ll never look at flower crowns the same way.
First and foremost, “Midsommar” defies the visual language of the horror genre. Rather than moody shadows and darkness, Aster creates a world of suspense and terror in the sun and flower-drenched fields of the Scandinavian countryside. Gone is the foreboding house of “Hereditary.” “Midsommar” is open, bright and colorful, detailed camera movements flowing in time with actors moving, singing or wailing intricate chants and choreography.
But “Midsommar” and “Hereditary” are of a piece, as are Aster’s short films, all of which explore unspeakable secret rot at the core of a family. If you take the third act reveal of “Hereditary” and expand it (two-and-a-half hours), you’d have “Midsommar,” where the family annihilation occurs swiftly and perfunctorily, then dives into a deranged world of cult and ritual. Paimon is so 2018. All hail the May Queen.
English actress Florence Pugh, who expresses a maturity far beyond her 23 years, stars as Dani, a young woman wracked with grief over a devastating loss. She’s wrapped up in a toxic relationship with her longtime boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor). In one last clinging attempt at stability, Dani tags along on a summer trip to Sweden with Christian and his grad school pals Mark, Josh and Pelle (Will Poulter, William Jackson Harper and Vilhelm Blomgren) for a traditional midsommar celebration in Pelle’s remote home village.
Compounded by Dani’s delicate emotional state, Dani and Christian’s floundering relationship grinds to its inevitable and terrible end against a backdrop of confounding cultural customs and ancient ritual, distracting the couple from the ominous red flags of their environment. Hoping for a party vacation, Mark is similarly distracted. Anthropology student Josh, wrapped up in research, can’t see the forest for the trees. Aster positions the one black character as the ethnographic researcher, who plunges into this world of strange, exotic white savages in hopes of understanding their bloody customs. It’s a smart flip of entrenched stereotypes in anthropology and underscores the ways in which the politesse of clueless foreigners and academic formality leads to their doom.
“Midsommar” stretches the generic mantle of “horror” about as far as it will go. There are no jump scares, slashings or cathartic screams and chases. It’s a relationship drama placed within the absurdly heightened circumstance of a strange, isolated cult. One could even say it’s a dramedy, the gory ideas and imagery peppered with intentionally ironic laugh-out-loud moments. The dreamy, color-drenched aesthetic combined with body horror and humor makes for a tonal roller coaster that leaves audiences with a kind of dissonant stomach-churning disturbance that’s not easy to shake.
It’s the defying of expectations, labels and genres that makes “Midsommar” such a shatteringly brilliant film. All we can expect is the ingenious Aster will continue to find new ways to shock and awe, cinematically, as he tears down a sick family to reimagine a new one, as dysfunctional and strange as it may be.
Cast: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren.
Directed by Ari Aster.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Rated R for disturbing ritualistic violence and grisly images, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language.