Directed by Ari Aster
Starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter
Early in Midsommar, emotionally devastated heroine Dani (The Outlaw King’s Florence Pugh) lies in bed under a poster of a little girl wearing a garland of flowers as she stares down a bear. It’s an upfront piece of foreshadowing in a horror movie full of them: As Dani tags along to a summer solstice festival in rural Sweden, we see clues everywhere—runic symbols foretell characters’ fates; the camera sweeps across a blanket with a crude drawing of a woman snipping her pubic hairs into a pie; even the commune inhabitants (soon to be revealed as members of a pagan cult) telegraph their peculiarity with their too-sweet smiles. Midsommar is that rare horror movie that doesn’t hold a central mystery. The challenge writer-director Ari Aster has set for himself is getting you to stay and see how everything will turn out even though you already know how they’re going to turn out.
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Dani’s four-year relationship with her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is slowly disintegrating when tragedy upends her life, and it is this trauma that forces Christian to invite her along to his clique’s long-planned trip to Sweden, to observe their friend Pelle’s (Vilhelm Blomgren) remote Hårga commune as they enact their midsummer rituals. Christian is unenthusiastic about having her there, as are fellow anthropology student Josh (William Jackson Harper) and horndog buddy Mark (Will Poulter, providing adept comic relief). In fact, the only supportive person is the angel-faced Pelle, who is eerily certain that the trip will do her good.
All that exposition is done in the dark of winter or in shadowy rooms. Which makes the group’s arrival at the nine-day festival even more jarring: Aster and director of photography Pawel Pogorzelski drench the location in light, from the Caucasian coloring of the cult members to their white linen costumes to the almost-technicolor brightness of the sky, the fields and the flora. Pugh matches all that aggressive radiance with the translucence of her portrayal: The actress’ face is so open and transparent, it’s almost as if she is mainlining her pain and simmering rage straight into your veins. She anchors the increasingly grisly turns of the plot (like Hereditary, Aster’s splashy debut, Midsommar is not for the squeamish) with the clarity of her emotions.
The brightness extends to the Hårga’s welcome, which includes serenades and hallucinogens. Grass sprouts from hands and feet (another bit of symbolic foreshadowing), trees and putrefying carcasses throb and pulsate. A quasi-orgy has women chanting and participating in awkward ways. If Aster didn’t have such a firm grasp of the dread-filled mood he’s building, all this trippiness would be unqualifiedly hilarious.
Which is also kinda the point: Midsommar may lack jump scares—it even drives that point home by running a meandering 147 minutes—but it also works as a comedy; as a friend noted, it’s a sly send-up to the self-serious cinema of Swedes like Bergman and Widerberg. Midsommar is also a breakup revenge fantasy, a statement on the liberating effect of insanity, a masochistic dive into emasculation. The lack of a mystery and the inevitability of its ending are beside the point; you sign up for a trip to Midsommar for all the bizarre sights Aster shows you on the way there.
Photographs from A24