From the writer-director of Hereditary comes another full-bore nightmare that’s crafted with finesse, presented with flair & exhibits an ominous aura that slowly gets under the skin. An increasingly uncomfortable, unsettling & unnerving folk horror, Midsommar is strange, bizarre & wicked. However, there’s a powerfully alluring quality to it that makes it an engaging sit. And though not as terrifying as Ari Aster’s directorial debut, his sophomore effort is still a very ambitious & audacious attempt that establishes him as one of the boldest new talents to step in the filmmaking industry.
The story concerns a young American couple whose relationship is on the brink of collapse, and is all the more strained in the wake of a family tragedy. Hoping to repair their disintegrating bond, the two decide to tag along with their friends to attend a once-in-a-lifetime summer solstice festival at an isolated commune in rural Sweden. But what begins as an idyllic summer retreat soon takes a sinister turn when the insular local folks invite their guests to partake in festivities that only get more n more disturbing, and ultimately turn their carefree holiday into an inescapable nightmare.
Written & directed by Ari Aster, the film opens with a mural that foreshadows the events of the entire film and then lays down the necessary groundwork for the plot by quickly introducing the characters & filling us on the deteriorating state of the central relationship that forms the crux of this narrative. Despite the appalling tragedy that sets this story into motion, the events unfold at a gradual pace for the most part and yet there is an uneasy feeling that accompanies the frames at all times. Aster’s direction is actually impressive, given how he keeps us invested & intrigued without giving much away.
Also, by making the toxic relationship its core ingredient, Aster’s script provides the pagan elements an added weight & dimension in the sense of how it impact the couple, both individually & together as a pair. From the opening moments, it is evident that both of them are incompatible with one another and that a break-up is imminent no matter what they do and how long they delay the inevitable. The communal festivities only help fasten up the process by acting as a catalyst, and leads them to where their relationship was always headed, albeit with far-reaching consequences. And yet in the end, it all feels surprisingly fitting.
Equally worthy of mention is the pagan rituals, traditions & lifestyle of the small Scandinavian community that Aster sketches from scratch, drawing inspirations from previous examples, such as The Wicker Man. Everything about the Hårga community comes off as convincing because it isn’t rushed. We are allowed to immerse in their culture and learn about it at the same pace that our characters do. What’s far more astonishing is how the fate of the foreign visitors, no matter how terrifying, makes sense in retrospect. Aster balances the dramatic tension & ritualistic horror with precision, and the end-result is an utterly engrossing ride.
Despite majority of the plot taking place in bright, sunny ambience, an invisible darkness always envelops the surroundings, plus the foreboding tone never for once allows us to properly settle down. The remote location, cut off from urban civilisation, provide just the perfect environment to create the sense of isolation. Cinematography sustains the disconcerting mood until the end with its lurking camerawork whereas the bright lighting & warm colour tones add a contrasting effect to the dark & disturbing moments that unfurl. The camera also captures the dizzied, trance-like state of our characters by showing the background to be breathing.
At 147 minutes, Midsommar may feel like a daunting task & the unhurried pace is bothersome if you did come looking for your typical horror fare infested with jump scares & genre clichés. However, the way Aster narrates the plot never lets the interest to fizzle out, and only immerses us deeper into its world. There are still a few loose ends that are present in the final print and that’s why, the 171-minutes Director’s Cut is a better option because it makes the overall viewing experience much richer, fuller & textured without modifying the story structure, and also adds considerable depth to the conflict between Dani & Christian, thus making the finale far more cathartic.
Coming to the performances, Midsommar features an interesting cast in Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren and Will Poulter, with Reynor & Pugh playing the doomed couple. Their fragmenting relationship has a genuine vibe, and both Pugh & Reynor do a fabulous job with their roles. Pugh’s performance is the one that easily stands out as she expertly articulates her character still reeling & recovering from the grief & trauma caused by the family tragedy. And her transformation over the course of the story has a natural progression to it. Reynor is brilliant as well, depicting his character’s self-centred persona with accuracy. As for the supporting cast, they all play their respective roles responsibly.
On an overall scale, Midsommar is another home-run for Ari Aster that finds the new-filmmaker-in-town further tightening his grip on his craft, and establishes him as one talent to watch out for. Although neither as tightly-knitted nor as accomplished as his debut feature, Aster’s latest is nonetheless noteworthy for its originality, and the dark places it ventures into while covering the themes of grief, trauma, toxic relationships, family & paganism. Exquisitely steered by Ari Aster’s excellent direction & intelligent writing, encapsulated with a disquieting chill brought upon by its hallucinogenic camerawork, deliberate pace, controlled editing, escalating score & harrowing imagery, and further uplifted by top-notch performances from its cast, Midsommar is one powerful psychedelic drug whose effect is felt long after the credits have rolled. Highly recommended.