After an instantly iconic debut, how does any emerging filmmaker avoid being pigeonholed as just a director who does That Sort Of Film? If you’re Ari Aster, following up last year’s ‘scariest film ever’ Hereditary, you make the most un-classifiable movie of 2019. With Midsommar, Aster has delivered a mind-melting mix of horror, comedy, drugs, and fairy tales, all wrapped in a story of grief and trauma and the cringing and painful, yet mundane, discomfort of being a third wheel on a group outing. Not so much scary as profoundly unsettling, Midsommar drops you into the middle of a psychotic break without any sort of safety net.
Our guide for much of the insanity is Dani (Florence Pugh), whose dying relationship with anthropology grad student Christian (Jack Reynor) is, perversely, saved by an unimaginably hideous tragedy in Dani’s family that stops Christian from initiating the breakup he wants. As a reluctant gesture of commitment, Christian invites Dani on a trip to Sweden with his friends; half boys’ trip, half field research. Invited by fellow student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to his family’s village, they arrive just in time for a ritual feasting week, and it’s not long before things take a turn for the surreal and horrific.
Pugh is absolutely phenomenal as Dani. It’s an unbelievably tough role, distraught and terrified and numbed by grief, yet taken to far lighter and stranger places too by the hallucinatory mushrooms that are handed out at every meal. It’s absolutely Pugh’s film, dominating the screen even when she’s just a voice at the other end of a phone call, the kind of performance that should win countless awards, but will most likely be overlooked in favour of something much safer and duller. Her presence is key to the fine balance of tones that Aster maintains, always inviting you to laugh without diluting the hellishness of events.
Midsommar is very, very funny, none of the humour ever feeling forced or by committee. No one is making wry remarks on the side, Aster’s script instead finding laughs in the inherent absurdity of the cultish behaviour encountered by Dani and her unlucky band of tourists. A group sex scene is both very discomforting and wildly hilarious, perhaps the funniest scene in any film this year, bolstered by the wide eyed presence of Reynor, who also gives a really sublime turn. Pugh and Reynor are ably supported by Will Poulter and The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper, both of whom also nail the tricky conflict of fear, confusion, and amusement.
Though Midsommar is certainly not as scary as Hereditary (the constant daylight keeps a decent amount of fear at bay), it is just as immersive and intense. Aster choreographs the carnage so expertly that it’s impossible not to be swept along by the mad energy emanating from the screen, helped by the ambitious cinematography of Pawel Pogorzelski, who uses every camera trick he can muster. You know that whatever is around the corner is going to be horribly disturbing, yet you can’t wait to get there anyway. Aster leaves a plethora of less than subtle clues about exactly where things are headed, but Midsommar still retains its powers of shock and awe all the way to the finish.
There are plenty of images here that aggressively burn themselves into the mind, with gore that would make Hannibal jealous and increasingly unreliable perceptions of reality from Dani and Christian as the insanity consumes them. The villagers’ peaceful hippie façade serves only to make their ease with violence markedly more disturbing, and their insistences that the Americans just calm down and acclimate themselves have the frustrating relatability of anyone who’s ever made you stay at a party for longer than you’ve wanted. You can see why Dani doesn’t just run away, even though both she and the audience know it’s the most rational course of action.
For all the blood and fire, the Sweden of the film still looks beautiful, lit by the never-setting sun of a Scandinavian summer, and Aster’s colour palette of bright pastels makes for some eerily gorgeous moments – only the American winter-set prologue retains Hereditary’s brooding darkness. The set design is magnificent too; empty, airy cabins and churches coated in pagan art immediately evocative and telling tales of timeless terror.
Completing the technical triumph is a breathless, haunting score from The Haxan Cloak and some pitch-perfect editing. Running at 140 minutes, Midsommar uses all of its plentiful time wisely, always pushing its story forward and its characters deeper and deeper into their respective psychological crises. Aster’s devilish sense of fun extends to his cuts, he and editor Lucian Johnston pulling off some incredibly cheeky transitions that are custom built to wrongfoot the audience in the most satisfying way. Dread and excitement build in equal measure, and it’s thrilling to have them work in such perfect harmony. Already, Ari Aster has the confidence and skill of a seasoned master, the new king of the grim and the skin-crawling. All hail.