Ari Aster’s Hereditary seemed to come out of nowhere and scare the entire living fuck out of us last year. Toni Collette should have been nominated for an Oscar for her performance as a grieving mother overcome with moments of intense rage and resentment, and the horrors that movie didn’t show us are the ones that lingered the most. Aster manipulated our sense of reality and our understanding of the dream-world in that film, and the last 10 minutes or so of Hereditary will give me nightmares for oh, I conservatively estimate, the rest of my goddamn life.
Midsommar is very much a follow-up to Hereditary in that it certainly and recognizably possesses many of the same qualities of that preceding Aster film (that tongue-clicking thing is replaced by an exaggerated outward breath!), but it also indulges in Aster’s worst impulses. Midsommar is unforgivably long, and its 140-minute runtime noticeably drags. Once again, Aster places a woman’s grief and the layers of her womanhood front and center, and the same people who questioned whether that is a male filmmaker’s place (as they did for Luca Guadagnino and his remake of Suspiria, which shares a lot of DNA with Hereditary) will probably do so again with this film. But what Aster has always done well, even in his exceptionally disturbing incest-focused short film The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, is probe at the idea of what makes a family. What are the shared rituals that bond people together? What makes someone a sister or a brother or a mother or a father? What is the transformative nature of loss? Who do we become after a part of ourselves is cleaved away?
And also once again, Aster considers these questions with an array of dazzlingly grotesque moments. There are some scenes so shockingly gory that a few audience members walked out of the Midsommar showing I attended last night, and we had all paid for tickets! They noped right out! Those people know who they are, and I respect that! Alongside those demonstrations of exceptional bloodshed and ritual sacrifice in Midsommar is a complex web of imagery and world-building that hints at customs that are years, decades, even centuries old, that have thrived in isolation in a forgotten corner of our shared planet. Next time someone invites you to attend what seems like an Anthropologie-sponsored retreat on a commune in a country you’ve never been to with a bunch of people you don’t know, you should pass.
Midsommar begins with Dani (Pugh, fully stepping into her own after Fighting With My Family and Outlaw King), a graduate student in psychology who suffers an astonishingly devastating loss. Her inadequate boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor of Kin, also doing great stuff here), is also inadequate to handle her grief, and after nearly a year of wanting to break up with her, he delays it again, thinking that makes him A Good Man. But the fact that their relationship is over in every way but its formal title is clear: the way Dani diminishes herself whenever Christian is around, the way Christian doesn’t talk to her about anything or share any of his decisions with her, the passive-aggressiveness and bitterness that seep into every conversation they have.
And so it’s shocking that Christian even invites Dani along with his friends to a trip to Hälsingland, Sweden, to 6-week-long festival that he planned to attend and only sort of, kind of told Dani about. Christian and his most-terrible friend Mark (Will Poulter) had planned on sleeping around during the trip, and that’s now hindered because of Dani’s presence, while anthropology PhD student Josh (William Jackson Harper) plans to study the festival for his dissertation, and their Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who invited them in the first place, is just happy to be home and sharing his community with his American friends. They’re a group of people only tenuously connected, really, and whose varying motivations come into sharp focus, and conflict, as soon as they arrive in Sweden.
Because this festival is engineered to unsettle you. On its surface, this is a verdant dream: Everyone in the community is welcoming and fresh-faced and happy, dressed in bright white robes embroidered with colorful stitching, and there are flowers and animals everywhere. The sun is always shining, and the food is fresh, and the community members are hospitable and generous, especially with their drugs. And yet there is an oozing darkness, a distinct otherness here, too. It’s not just the runes the community uses to communicate, or the off-limits buildings where they can’t go, or the artwork that depicts images of spell-casting and ritual murder. It’s the actual spell-casting and murder that Dani, Christian, Josh, and Mark encounter on their trip that pulls them further into what feels like an unsettling acid trip, where the trees wave and flowers pulse and people disappear. Mix some horrifying pagan ceremonies into Alex Garland’s Annihilation, and you’ve sort of found the wavelength Midsommar is operating on.
Aster paces his film almost excruciatingly slowly, and so the intensity of your dread builds and builds until it sometimes tips over into a hysteria that is more amusing and less scary. That helps decrease the tension, at least, but it also limits the impact of what Aster clearly intends to be some of the film’s most disturbing moments. An orgy that ridicules male sexual performance is supposed to have an undercurrent of danger, but the wicked mockery of it is what lingers. There is a figure lurking in the shadows of the film who is meant to signify the community’s depravity and single-mindedness, but the inspiration for that individual is so clearly an homage to a horror classic like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and to Aster’s own previous work, that it doesn’t feel particularly unique. And Aster’s tendency to hammer home the movie’s most violent imagery by cutting back to shots of bashed-in skulls and deflated bodies during unrelated scenes is certainly jarring, but disrupts the movie’s already-painstakingly slow rhythm.
Visually, though, Midsommar is stupendous. Remember how in Annihilation, there was this blurring of the natural world and our “civilized” or “domesticated” one? Aster does something similar here by distorting our expectations constantly: While Hereditary was a film that often tricked us with its figures lingering in the corners of the camera frame and those millisecond-long flashes of multicolored light, Midsommar takes its time and luxuriates in our splendor at the beauty of this place, and at the mannered depravity it hides. When the group drives into Hälsingland, our perspective flips all the way upside down, Inception-style, so that a long, Shining-like drive into the wilderness is even lonelier and more disconcerting. Aster favors those sort of long takes throughout Midsommar, lingering on people standing on a cliffside, on Dani’s frenzied dancing around a maypole, around Christian’s discomfort at a communal dinner table. Under Aster’s guidance, cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, returning from Hereditary, isolates those who are already isolated, and they force us to join these characters in their patience and their despair.
But what I can’t quite figure out after watching Midsommar, and what I’m wary to determine with a rewatch, is whether the film’s narrative journey really tracks. In Hereditary, we understood every single one of Collette’s character’s motivations: her feeling of abandonment by her mother, her concern that huge chunks of her personal life didn’t make sense, her anger that her children didn’t seem to love and appreciate her. That all worked in juxtaposition with the movie’s final reveals. In Midsommar, Pugh gives a soon-to-be-classic performance that first puts Dani’s grief front and center (her anguished screams are incomparable), and then incorporates her constant denial of her own emotions and her unsure body language as the film progresses. Pugh takes us along as she works through Dani’s restructuring of her own reality, and the film itself is very intentional about why her disappointing boyfriend is named Christian, why it feels so cathartic when she can sob without anyone judging her, and why she responds as she does to other couples they meet. But does Midsommar complicate itself so much with its own mythology and its own ponderous pace that it decreases the power of Pugh’s performance? That’s unfortunately the question I’m left with after viewing Midsommar, a movie that is less straightforwardly scary and more unsettlingly spooky, but that I’m not quite sure reaches the glorious horror heights to which we know Aster is capable.