Ari Aster burst onto the horror scene with Hereditary (2018), a meticulously crafted film that has been compared to The Exorcist (1973) in its craft and scares. No doubt, the American director’s second film is highly anticipated, especially to see if Aster can prove to not be a one-hit-wonder. Thus Midsommar (2019) carries a certain weight and expectation in making or breaking the rise of a new auteur.
Midsommar follows a group of Americans, Dani (Florence Pugh), Christian (Jack Reynor, Josh (William Jackson Harper), and Mark (Will Poulter) as they visit a remote Swedish communitarian village, where their university friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) grew up. The group comes to witness a rare celebration of the summer solstice, which may turn out to be unlike anything they had expected.
The problem with many ambitious films is that they break out of the molds of traditional genres, which leads to some viewer confusion and let down. While Aster’s Hereditary was a horror film in a classical sense, Midsommar is a much more complex being, akin to a contemplative tension builder. There are moments of unease and revulsion, but the film never prompts scares or urges you to curl up into a ball in your seat.
Aster plays around with the length of the film (over 2 hrs and 30 mins), by having the all-sunny setting and pleasant Swedes give off an air of skepticism to viewers. Much of the uncomfortable moments come from viewers’ imaginations more than anything else; Aster is smart to provide little nuggets of information that lead the audience to their own demons and fears. Like with Hereditary, Aster’s inventive (yet complimentary unsettling) cinematography provides so much to dissect that Midsommar begs multiple viewings.
As the film begins to provide answers and the tension from mystery wears off, one begins to see Midsommar as a much more layered film about grief and identity in social groups. The narrative is slow enough that it eases the jarring atmosphere that our characters settle into, to the point that the crazy rituals and acts of the last portion of the film don’t appear as bizarre as they would be if seen as stand-alone clips. The cast does a fine job at helping this transition along, especially the always-stellar Pugh. Pugh is proving to be a go-to actress, jumping through genres with relative ease; her difficult role in Midsommar is taken in stride, making it look effortless. This bodes well for film fans and the British actress alike, as it shows that she is an actress yet to find the limits of her ability.
Aster pushes far into his explorative territory, to the point that Midsommar will leave no one indifferent, requiring a certain mindset of analytics and interpretation of symbolism to be appreciated. The length of the film can be off-putting for many, but the slow pace is part of the effect that Aster has infused in order to create an atmosphere to explore his chosen themes.
It should be advised that you should not go see Midsommar alone, not because it’s scary, but because the messages and clues left to dissect afterwards are begging to be discussed. The film is sure to leave some, expecting another horror flick, disappointed, and Aster’s unique tone will be unpleasant for many. However, Midsommar proves to be an intelligent and expert sophomore outing for Aster, which along with Pugh’s captivating performance make this a truly unique cinematic and psychological experience.