Judging from the divisive reception of his first film, Hereditary, it’s apparent that writer/director Ari Aster’s style is not for everyone, and there’s a good chance his new folk-horror film, Midsommar, will split audiences right down the middle once again. It’s self-indulgent, ponderous (some might say boring), metaphorical, unsettling and, if you choose to invest yourself, uniquely creepy. Aster’s narratives are imbued with cognitive surrealism, as if his purpose isn’t to scare the audience, but to unearth demons in his own psyche. There’s something deeply personal about his films, and Hereditary, a terrifying, albeit unfocused, foray into a family’s buried secrets, set the bar. With Midsommar, he follows up with a simplified but equally thoughtful approach, ripping characters from their comfort zones, dropping them into a foreign territory, then retreating to watch them disintegrate.
Reeling from a recent family tragedy, Dani (a mesmerizing Florence Pugh), seeks comfort in the arms of her apathetic boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), who is male toxicity personified. Christian’s grad school pals try to convince him to break it off with her, but he stays, convinced she wouldn’t survive a break-up. When their Swedish friend, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), beckons Christian and his academic compatriots to visit him in Halsingland, Sweden, a pastoral area where the Harga tribe celebrate midsummer with a nine-day celebration of dance and psychotropics, Christian reluctantly invites Dani. What follows is an allegorical, sun-drenched nightmare.
Although comparisons to The Wicker Man are inevitable, Midsommar isn’t as interested with the fish out of water, Western-psyche motif as much as the disorienting effects of a relationship gone awry. This movie is a long, bad acid trip; anxiety-ridden, but always intriguing. When Christian, Dani and their oblivious, millennial friends (engendering most of the movie’s laughs) arrive in the Swedish commune, they’re warmly welcomed by the Harga tribe with inviting smiles, flowing hair and white frocks. A tract of green acreage, peppered with off-kilter buildings straight out of Grimm’s fairy tale, the sun always shines in this part of the world, but the interiors of its hexagonal buildings are both stifling and texturally bleak.
As Christian and his friends snoop into the commune’s private machinations for their academic pursuits, Dani undergoes a transformation of her own, coming to terms with her own dark musings as she grows closer to the Harga’s community of women. Soon, the cracks begin to show, not only in Dani and Christian’s tenuous relationship, but with the commune’s deceptively sunny demeanor.
With a running time of 140 minutes, Midsommar is unrelenting in its flirtation with dread, not unlike Hereditary was. Aster’s style is much more restrained here and there’s a naturalistic quality to the narrative, as if we’re following these people in real time. So, when things go wrong, the brutal violence is much more acute. Still, his talent as a director exceeds those as a screenwriter. He seems to be splattering ideas on a canvas, hoping a few might hold, when he’d do better condensing his subject matter into a more focused, palpable theme.
That said, Aster is one of our most original filmmakers, especially for horror, in that he discards traditional tropes and opts for a headlong journey into existentialist sickness and anxiety. What happens when you can’t connect with others, especially those you love? What’s that empty space inside of you feel like? Like Kubrick, he lingers on scenes most directors would cut away from, and there are images in this film that are unshakable. Sometimes this stripped down, prismatic approach works, at other times it flails. But love it or hate it, you won’t easily forget the blinding sunshine, surrealist tumult and extreme violence of Midsommar.