The last few years have been a strong stretch for horror that is at least dressed up in “good movie” clothing. It Follows, Hereditary, The Witch; they’ve all capitalized on being low-budget and likely to produce a profit, with enough smarts and genre mastery to bring their creators critical adoration.
Midsommar is another entry in that canon; written and directed by Hereditary’s Ari Aster, it’ll likely be the weirdest 147 minutes you’ll spend in a theater this summer. I don’t think I’d recommend it to anyone but cinema buffs or horror aficionados, but not because it’s subpar; it’s just a lot. Say what you will about Aster’s feature films thus far, but the guy makes what he wants to make.
Dani (Florence Pugh) has just been through a horrific family tragedy. Her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) had been working up the courage to break up with her; now he’s trying to be as lazily supportive as possible until she feels better or leaves him. Before either occurs, he sheepishly invites her on a guys’ trip to Sweden, to the great chagrin of friends Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper). The only person who seems excited is Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who is bringing the gang to his remote village for a once-in-a-lifetime celebration. If that last part doesn’t cause you to raise an eyebrow…
If you’ve seen Hereditary, you know Aster loves nude cultists and rituals and unexpected moments of violence. These are all on display in Midsommar and then some; the writer-director also makes perfect use of the rolling Hungarian (standing in for Swedish) hillside for beautiful shots that distract us from how insane this all is. How could people who live among such majesty be so unhinged? Even though the movie was marketed as frightening from moment one, everyone involved does an excellent job in stringing along reasonable doubt until it’s fully clear that, yes, this is all about to get wild.
It’s also not surprising that Aster has declared this to be a breakup movie; in between all the shocking and absurd cult-centric conflict, it really captures the discomfort between two people who don’t want to be together but aren’t sure how else to be. Christian can’t bring himself to dump Dani but can easily be a huge dick to her; Dani has been through personal hell but isn’t sure what else she can hold onto. Sometimes after a relationship, you want to throw your current life in the garbage and disappear; other times, you just want to sleep around. Aster captures both sides of this dynamic, perfectly set against the backdrop of some pleasantly deranged Swedes.
My biggest frustration hangs on how much time he devotes to convincing his audience that these two are really, truly, definitely, irrevocably ready to make their final batch of fucked-up choices. It’s occasionally played for laughs, which feels necessary given how long it lasts for, but chopping 20 minutes from the final hour would’ve been just as satisfying. We see Dani and Christian decide to torpedo so much in what feels like real time; it adds to the impact, sure, but I think we got it already. If Aster was focused on being cinematically masochistic, mission accomplished.
At the same time, you have to tip your cap to the auteur and his producers. The entire time, I kept saying to myself “How the hell did this movie even get made?” which is a unique sentiment for cookie-cutter 2019. I am not the biggest horror fan but I appreciate that it’s a genre where directors can work cheap and pursue off-kilter ideas in the process. Aster takes his time to develop characters and respect their motivations; he also included a scene where a naked character wears another character’s sliced-off face. If you’re looking for a unique, memorable melding of those two elements, welcome to horror heaven.