A young couple travels to Sweden to visit their friend’s rural hometown and attend its mid-summer festival. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly descends into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult.
Well, that might just be my weirdest cinema experience of 2019.
I went into Midsommar feeling pretty sure I knew what I was getting. I’d seen Ari Aster’s previous film Hereditary (which I really enjoyed), and I’d also made a point to read some interviews with Aster beforehand, where he described his intentions for the movie.
In these interviews, Aster described himself as wanting to play with the themes of loss, loneliness, grief, and toxic relationships. All of which are featured in the movie. The thing is though, I feel that they might just play a much smaller role than we were led to believe.
Now that’s not to say that Aster has nothing to say on these topics. The movie starts with our main character, Dani (Florence Pugh), receiving a devastating family loss that affects her journey over the entire movie. She feels alone in her grief, her unsupporting boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is little help, and like Toni Collette’s character in his previous movie, she just doesn’t understand what she’s supposed to do. These ARE the movie’s themes, but does Aster truly explore them? I’m not so sure.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy Midsommar. I actually quite loved it, (possibly even more so than Hereditary), but Midsommar is its own beast, doing its own thing, in a way that Hereditary couldn’t get away with.
It mostly comes down to characters. For all of Aster’s talk of his intentions with this movie, it’s nowhere near as engaging character-wise, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Midsommar doesn’t feel like it’s trying to bring you into its story, it feels like something that is being rolled, intricately out before you, for you to witness. You’re just a fly on the cult walls, watching and savoring every delicious frame.
If I was to try and explain the look of this movie, it’s probably best described as a horrifying, technicolor fairy-tale, and major props should be given to the set designers, cinematographers, and costume designers who made the hills of Sweden come alive (sometimes almost literally). Aster has already shown he is a talent behind the camera, but by filming exclusively in daylight, he’s really able to emphasize his framing and use of color, making some shots that you just want to continue to stare at long after they’re’ gone.
There is a nice juxtaposition going on here between the directing and the script that feels intentional. The script itself is relatively simple and unpredictable, there are no twists to shock, or grand revelations. Each action has a reaction further on in the movie that feels realistic, and what makes these moments work, is how Aster draws them out.
This is not a fast paced movie by any means, and I would be lying if I said you didn’t feel the movies two hour and twenty-minute running time once or twice. It does, however, allow the movie to create events. The alluded to scene in the trailer for instance, with the blood on the rune headstone, is meticulously crafted to the point where we feel we have been taken on the whole journey. We know what’s coming, but Aster takes so long getting there that we are unsure if there will ever be a reprieve.
On the topic of reprieves, the one thing I wasn’t actually expecting with Midsommar is how damn funny it is. My cinema screen was full of nervous/awkward giggles for the majority of the movie, and the laughs always felt intentionally placed. The biggest laugh actually turns up in one of the movies overall more disturbing scenes and still doesn’t manage to break the tension that’s been created. Aster also enjoys playing with expectations, as never has the ‘nice guy’ boyfriend (Reynor) been more awful, and the ‘asshole type’ (Poulter) more relatable. Poulter especially puts in a good performance, with a trip on mushrooms at the festival’s start being a highlight.
Many reviews have praised Florence Pugh, and while she certainly doesn’t have as much to work with as Toni Collette did, she can certainly react to anything and everything and sob like nobody’s business. Her complete mental breakdown towards the end of the movie shows that she can still make the role dramatic, even with all the craziness going on around her, and she centers the film effectively. Jack Reynor is also good as the ‘aloof’ boyfriend, and really embraces the role for all it’s worth with some fairly rare male nudity.
The last thing I wanted to touch on briefly in this review was the gore factor. It wasn’t quite as strong as I was expecting in frequency, but boy, when it pops up, does it pop up! There’s a moment in this film that features some of the best practical effects used in horror from the last few years, and to have it shown in daylight, without the comfort of being able to hide in the shadows, shows you how confident a director Aster really is. If you have seen the movie, you likely know which scene I’m talking about, and if you haven’t, well, you will.
A horrific, technicolor fairy-tale, Midsommar is a movie that delivers full-on dread, terrific practical effects, and most surprisingly, laughs. Ari Aster is now two for two and has somehow managed to make a weirder movie than his first, that’s also somehow more accessible.
Midsommar was produced by A24 Films and stars Florence Pugh (Fighting with my Family), Jack Reynor (On the Basis of Sex), Will Poulter (The Maze Runner) and William Jackson Harper (The Good Place).