A ruthless air of disquietude pervades Ari Aster’s works; whether it be the taboo-shattering relationship at the core of The Strange Thing About The Johnsons, or the inexorable, chest-clutching dread of Hereditary post-lamppost. He has a knack for excavating the soul, it seems. Aster is keener on what goes bump in the head, not the night – and his sophomore daymare, Midsommar, is a fiercely original, unforgettably perverse work of genius.
Unease flows from the opening frames, snow showering the abyss of nighttime woodlands, directly juxtaposing the expectancy of sun. From here we’re introduced to Dani (Florence Pugh), who’s stressed about her bipolar sister’s capricious messages. She turns to her heedless boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), who provides little semblance of genuine support. His boyish pal Mark (Will Poulter) keeps telling him to “get out of this stupid relationship”, but he lacks the gumption.
Tragedy strikes, the kind of event one would say is unimaginable, until Aster tracks the whole thing with a traumatic lack of hesitation. He compresses an aftermath akin to Hereditary into just his opening, paired with The Haxan Cloak’s screeching composition – it’s a masterclass of acting, direction and jaw-dropping payoff. Titles emerge from the wintery weather; let the festivities begin.
Naturally, Christian feels far too guilty to continue on the path of pieing Dani off. Instead, he invites her on a trip to Sweden, where he and friends Mark, Josh (William Jackson Harper) and native-traveller Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) plan to attend a historic midsummer festival, only occurring every 90 years – part-anthropology study, part-lads holiday. Though, their immersion in the wacky culture of the commune’s insular residents grows increasingly sinister.
Hereditary tightened the thematic focus through Toni Collette’s barnstorming central performance – Midsommar is much looser and leisurely, ideas floating in and out of place as we soak up the bleached Windows XP vistas. The scorching scenery is there to be chewed – Aster and his trusty cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski frame the pagan terror against the most unlikely backdrop – sunlight. In that regard, you cannot escape the imagery inflicted upon you, whether it’s the foreshadowing details of creepy illustrations in the background (there’s a lot of penises), or more overt attempts to shock with poetically graceful, yet fearlessly gruesome swan dives.
The imagery verges from unsettling to horrifying, particularly when drugs are in the mix – the simple warping of one’s face and general surroundings provokes the most nervous of laughs, as well as playing with your sense of reality. Though, there are some genuine chuckles in the script; Aster dabbles in dark-comedy with his writing of Poulter’s sleazy character and droll observations throughout.
It would be easy to write this off as a Wicker Man 2.0 of sorts – but Midsommar is an entirely different beast, in that, it’s the first of its kind. It’s a narcotics-fuelled folk horror trip, looking at grief and toxic relationships, with 18-rated gore, pubic hair pies, ritualistic dancing and mega-strange sex scenes (between this and High Life, 2019 is the year of outré pleasures of the flesh). The director/writer penetrates your inhibitions, playing a game that only ends one way but still keeping you second-guessing.
Amidst the showboating filmmaking (an airplane toilet transition so smooth it’s almost annoying) and ubiquitous production design, Aster’s already establishing trademark tricks and moves: wide, unconventional scenes; rail shots that glide across multiple rooms in seamless, Kubrickian fashion; scintillating long-takes of peculiar interactions and passive-aggressive conflicts. With regards to the latter, his ensemble is fantastic. The supporting cast can fall by the wayside a bit (Poulter and Harper’s characters could have used more depth), but they rarely step wrong on screen.
Reynor is frustrating – and that’s the point. He portrays a scarily real boyfriend of today, one reliant on the blame game and passing the buck. The consistency of his disingenuous behaviour towards Dani, and his definite gaslighting, is not only relevant but a desperately sad indicator of the filmmaker’s inspiration. It’s no surprise that Dani is the most developed, but that’s partly due to Pugh’s remarkably charged performance. From an explosion of grief, to faux-enjoyment, to amplified exhales and darting eyes, she’s a terrifically believable instrument in the story – one moment, with an enigmatic smile, sits long with you after the credits. The runtime is indulgent, but the ballsy ambition outweighs any dips in grip. Some audiences will struggle, others will worship – my advice is to “acclimate”.
A beautiful daymare that certifies Aster as cinema’s next great master of horror.