The Pitch: Dani (Florence Pugh) is not having the best time. On the verge of a breakup with her inattentive boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), she suffers a devastating tragedy that claims the lives of her entire family. Feeling guilty, Christian invites Dani to join him and his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) on a trip to the Swedish commune where the latter was raised.
Upon arrival, the friends are asked to take part in a nine-day celebration held once every 90 years. Needless to say, sinister things are afoot, and the commune members aren’t as innocent as they seem. It isn’t long before our heroine is thrust into the middle of a pagan ritual that threatens her life, as well as those of her friends.
Dread and … Laughs (?) Over Scares: Those looking for a jump-a-minute scarefest should look elsewhere, as Midsommar has other things on its mind. The film is never outright scary, but similar to Ari Aster‘s Hereditary, it builds a significant amount of dread.
Aster uses daylight to his advantage, utilizing an aesthetic not seen in many horror films. Every bloody wound is highlighted under the sun, offering an unnerving juxtaposition that’s gory, yet not exactly blood-soaked. That may disappoint those hoping for carnage candy, and while the film wouldn’t necessarily benefit from going that route, there are a few off-screen deaths that could have been featured more prominently. Just be prepared for haunting imagery over more traditional action-horror fare.
What’s really surprising, though, is how Midsommar is funny, and intentionally so. Echoes of the dark comedy seen in other ignorant-Americans-in-a-foreign-country films like Hostel and its superior sequel make up the DNA of Midsommar. Poulter, in particular, is frequently hilarious in his delivery of Mark’s cultural insensitivities. But Aster has some fun, too, injecting a healthy dose of gallows humor into the proceedings. One minute you’ll be laughing at a pubic hair meat pie, and the next you’ll be cringing at some of the more grotesque displays of corpses to be found on this side of NBC’s Hannibal.
The disparity between these tones is great, and yet Aster weaves them together seamlessly. It’s one of the more captivating feats of Midsommar.
A Slow Burn: Like Hereditary, Midsommar is a deliberately paced film that slowly builds tension over the course of its lengthy 140-minute (!) runtime. Don’t let that number scare you, though; this thing moves. While the film does drag a bit in transitioning from its second to third act (Hereditary was also guilty of this), it’s a roller coaster of insanity from there. And whereas Hereditary faced (unfounded) complaints about its third act feeling disjointed, Midsommar won’t be plagued by such criticisms. It’s all in plain sight.
So are the film’s influences. Aster owes more than a few debts to Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, both in terms of narrative and stylistic choices, and therein lies the initial problem: Anyone with a lick of sense will immediately know something is amiss with Pelle’s commune. Even so, Aster manages to keep viewers fully captivated, and the “fun” then stems from unraveling the paganists’ plot for our protagonists. While the revelations aren’t too surprising, you can’t complain when it’s executed as expertly as it is here.
Having said that, it’ll be interesting to see how Midsommar plays on multiple viewings. Where the mystery behind Hereditary benefits from those revelations, the fairly straightforward narrative here doesn’t leave much to uncover by the time the credits roll.
Hell in the Pugh: The performances are solid across the board — Reynor shows some incredibly strong chops as the cowardly Christian — but it’s Pugh who walks away with it all. She delivers an incredibly nuanced performance, even amidst the character’s showier moments and emotional outbursts. So much is asked of this remarkable young star, including several devastating displays of grief and challenging moral face-offs that she sells with some tremendous eye-acting. Between this and Fighting With My Family, 2019 is shaping up to be a great year for Pugh.
The Verdict: Midsommar is a mind-fuck of the highest order, channeling a young woman’s journey through grief and a toxic relationship. At 140 minutes the film is deliberate but never boring, aided by Pugh’s phenomenal performance and its stunning visuals.
Once again, Aster’s superb direction is complemented by Pawel Pogorzelski’s dazzling cinematography (the man really knows how to frame a tableau), and the imagery alone deserves to be framed on a wall. Speaking of which, make special note of the ensuing artwork in this film.
Though it’s not outright scary, Midsommar will no doubt unsettle even the most steeled of viewers. It will also satiate those who may have feared a sophomore slump from Aster. Hardly. This film’s the real deal, and if anything, it’s more audience-friendly than his first.
Don’t miss it.
Where’s It Playing? Midsommar opens its summer gates on July 3rd.