The second feature film from writer/director Ari Aster, Midsommar has been getting a lot of buzz as one of the best horror films of the past few years – and I think such praise is well deserved. If you like horror, and especially if you’re looking for something different and unique, I advise you stop reading right now and see it when you can. As always, I recommend going in as blind as possible. If you still need convincing, read on.
Midsommar is a folk horror, and has a style and tone that is quite unlike anything I’ve seen before. I often want to like horror – I love dark themes and mystical, supernatural scary shit, but so many are hampered by the unfortunate clichés and tropes of the genre; low budgets, subpar performances, and annoying character decisions (“The killer’s out there! Let’s split up!”). Fortunately, Midsommar manages to avoid most of these pitfalls and is instead refreshingly new, while still being intensely unsettling and genuinely frightening.
Florence Pugh plays our heroine Dani – and she’s excellent. The film starts with her experiencing some real-world horror that, in a way, dwarfs everything else in the film. The kind of nightmarish experience that would shatter your entire world. The reveal of this is slow, deliberate, and incredibly effective. To try to cope with the trauma of this event, Dani is reluctantly invited to join her slightly goofy, bumbling boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends on a trip to Sweden to attend a small festival in the cosy rural commune where their friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) grew up. Joining them are Josh (William Jackson Harper), a university student working on a thesis about ancient rituals and traditions, and Mark (Will Pouter), a randy young man only interested in the bevy of blonde Swedes that are bound to be there.
Soon enough, we’re in the sun-drenched Sweden summer as Pelle leads the characters to the remote communal village. They arrive to beautiful rolling hills, fields full of flowers and many smiling, friendly faces. It’s all impossibly idyllic. They’re also very quickly given doses of psychedelic mushrooms. Dani initially resists – someone in the throws of grief in a strange new land is probably not the best candidate for a mushroom trip, but she acquiesces to avoid conflict in the group. As the drugs take hold, Midsommar delivers the most convincing portrayal of psychedelic experience that I’ve seen in cinema. CGI is used sparingly to warp and distort images – almost imperceptibly at times. The edges of frames expand and shrink like the image itself is breathing. Characters’ faces shift and swirl, but in a way that you can never quite pin down. There’s a lot of “Wait… were those eyes a weird size or did I just imagine it?” Already, Midsommar is messing with your perception.
Then come the rituals. Our group of plucky psychedelic adventurers are decidedly in the dark about what’s going to happen at this festival, and while all the members of the commune are full of smiles and love, things get very dark, very quickly. And I mean that thematically, not literally, because Midsommar is set in the middle of a Swedish summer, when daylight hours last for most of the day, and nearly every scene is bathed in a warm, golden light. This is possibly the visually brightest horror film I’ve ever seen. For a genre which so often relies on darkness to evoke its atmosphere, the constant bright visuals are a great point of difference and felt genuinely refreshing.
Also refreshing is the lack of a central villain. Or any villain at all really. The enemy in Midsommar is not some psychopath, or evil creature, but instead the long-held traditions and arcane rituals of a secluded commune of well-meaning individuals. In many ways I find that more terrifying, and real, than any individual threat so typical of the genre. We join the characters in being lulled into a false sense of safety and security. Despite an overall air of unease, things never get to a point where the characters feel in genuine danger, so their relative inaction is entirely believable, before they reach a point where nothing can be done.
Helping us along on the journey are a strong core of performances from the leads, and the supporting characters in the village for that matter, although the village acts more as a chorus rather than having any stand out member. While Florence Pugh is, as previously mentioned, a particular stand out, the entire cast carry themselves well. The only complaint I have, if you could even call it that, is that Jack Reynor’s Christian carries a certain Chris Pratt-ness, charming, and very funny, but unfortunately eliciting laughs during some of the creepiest climactic moments when comedy was probably not what the director intended. Although my subjective interpretation could be entirely wrong and simply a result of discomfort relieved through laughter.
Midsommar is a film full of mythic, mystic rituals and symbols, in a world that feels genuinely real and believable. Deeply unsettling, it tapped into a deeper part of my subconscious in a way that I think only truly great horror can. If you’re a horror fan, I can’t recommend Midsommar enough. It’s a very, very good example of psychological horror that doesn’t rely on jump scares and gore to create its intensely unnerving mood. However, even if you’re not a particular fan of the genre, but appreciate good filmmaking, and are interested in something darker and more provocative than the usual film festival fare, then I’d strongly suggest giving Midsommar a watch.