'Midsommar' Is Already the Most Terrifying Movie of the Summer
While introducing his latest horror symphony, Midsommar, Ari Aster addressed what many were probably wondering after seeing his debut feature Hereditary: How he's doing. "I wrote this when I was going through a breakup," he told the audience about the brightly lit fever dream they were about to witness. "I’m better now."
When Hereditary premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, it seemed to almost come from nowhere, like a pole on the highway as a car whizzes by. A year and effusive praise changes a lot, and thus Midsommar entered the conversation with a lavish special screening at Alamo Drafthouse theaters across the country. In New York, at least, there was a themed menu (with Swedish meatballs, of course) and cocktails on every seat. (As far as I know, the drinks did not contain any psychotropic substances, like the beverages consumed on screen. I only had a couple of sips, though.) This is all to say that the hype machine was in full force as one of the first batches of critics sat down to watch the film before its release.
What was in store was not a crowd-pleaser by any traditional means -- in fact, the champagne flutes seemed almost insensitive after the deeply upsetting first act. No, Midsommar is a deliberately paced journey into a sun-kissed hell. It's brutal and grotesque, but also absurdly hilarious. The film is not shy about the fact that it's a heightened tale of a relationship gone sour, and it's the manner in which it marries Aster's knack for creatively wrought monstrosities with mundane frustrations that make it both deliriously fun and rattling to its core.
To that end, the film opens on its heroine, Dani (Florence Pugh), in a state of panic. She's gotten a distressing email from her sister, which is the primary source of her worry, but she's also concerned that she's relying too heavily on her disinterested boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), for support. "What if I need him too often," she wonders on a phone call to an unnamed friend. As one might expect given Midsommar's pedigree, Dani's fears are justified.
The traumatic event that has befallen her family is revealed in one of the most gruesome tracking shots in recent memory, and despite Christian's apathy toward his girlfriend, he continues dating her out of a sense of obligation. When June rolls around, he begrudgingly invites her on a Swedish sojourn to visit the homeland of one of his buds, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who ominously advertises all the midsummer festivities that will take place. The group of American students includes Josh (William Jackson Harper), who's researching his thesis; and Mark, played by a sneering and vaping Will Poulter, who just wants to get laid. The trip is ultimately an excuse to party.
Aster starts employing some visual tricks as soon as his unsuspecting visitors touch down in Sweden. On their drive to the outskirts of Pelle's strange commune, the world is quite literally flipped upside down thanks to the psychedelic mushrooms the group has taken. Aster once described Midsommar as "Wizard of Oz for perverts," and stepping into the unrelenting sunlight of the Hårga community is indeed like entering the technicolor world of Oz, except with far more bloodshed. The drawings on the walls of the room where all the young adults are supposed to sleep spell out the trouble that lies ahead, but no one realizes how literal the art is until it's too late.
As the narrative draws on -- the film is a sturdy 140 minutes -- both the characters and the audience start to drift into the alternate reality of this community. Aster subtly strips away all connections to the mundane squabbles of millennial life so that by the end, you feel like you've landed on another planet.
Pugh, a performer who has already been great and seems destined for more greatness, anchors the film with her devastation, her face contorting with skepticism, sorrow, and sneers. Her pain is at the root of the action, but Midsommar is also a bizarrely funny movie. Much of that humor comes from Poulter, posturing as a bro asshole whose idiocy is both naive and doomed, but also from Reynor, playing essentially the worst boyfriend ever. Christian's awfulness is rooted in aggressive mediocrity -- he's not particularly abusive, just generally shitty. As the ridiculousness of his situation increases, culminating in what is maybe one of the oddest sex scenes ever, Reynor displays a goofy bewilderment that can only elicit giggles.
There are moments when you think the comedy might overtake the pulsating dread, but this is an Ari Aster movie, after all, which means evil (or something akin to it) wins out in the end. Sure, some viewers may leave Midsommar finding themselves wanting more -- closure, explanation -- but that's also what makes it wonderful. Hårga is such a rich tapestry of terror, designed to envelope you in its creepy embrace, that it's a perverse pleasure to spend time traipsing through its grass. You may even want to put on a flower crown.