Review: Midsommar (2019)

Following up on last year’s phenomenal Hereditary, Ari Aster returns with a markedly similar film. Midsommar follows two college students in a bitter yet unending relationship, Florence Pugh’s traumatized Dani Ardor more unwilling than unable to recognize her boyfriend Christian’s desperation to leave. What was once an escape for Christian turns into a shared vacation to a pagan Swedish festival that quickly turns into a violent ritual.

Ari Aster holds a stellar command over the atmosphere of his films, but what surprised me here is how much Midsommar operates in the reverse of a traditional work of horror. The most terrible moments are upfront and brutal; by starting with such high tension, Aster is able to slowly lessen the load and twist it toward surprising directions. What starts as violent realism descends into surrealistic madness, the once solid turning metaphysical. This is a film that carries the surface style of a work like The Wicker Man while brooding within a certain existential phantasmagoria that transformed Ingmar Bergman’s career around the middle of his so-called Trilogy.

Aster manages to be such a compelling director because he imbues his metaphorical works with so much precision; the pagan ritual carries as much weight as the underlying pain of a relationship being dragged well beyond its death. The result is mystifying; both elements are so unpredictable, yet when the pieces fall into place, there’s a slick cohesion between the two.

As such, Midsommar certainly feels built for a certain audience; you have to drop any notion of this being a straightforward narrative experience before it begins. Aster asks you to join him on a descent into emphatic chaos, where emotions weigh heavier over plot progression than narrative logic.

The characters are simply defined, pawns in a twisted moral tale. Though their motives are straightforward, they still carry a heavy impact. Like Toni Collette in Hereditary, Florence Pugh puts on a performance well above the usual expectations of a horror film, one that should solidify her as one of the finest young actresses working today. Few of the film’s horrors would hit as hard without her ability to reduce herself to a puddle of despair, sobbing with such force that it becomes less bearable than the terror she’s witnessing. There are absurd moments to this movie, some of which are certainly intended to be funny, but all Aster has to do is show Pugh reacting in despair and any humor ceases immediately.

On a visual level, Midsommar is a true gift. The cult grounds mix beauty and macabre, loaded with colorful paintings of horrible scenes. Structures carry a certain intrigue, a bright yellow pyramid hanging over the movie as much as the ceaseless sunlight. The cult members are garbed in white, combining with the over-saturated footage to create a sense of midday haze. These designs reach a high anytime the characters achieve the same, their drug trips causing the image to pulsate in a way that suggests life where there shouldn’t be.

Key editing choices really guide us to the heart of the film, keeping the narrative focused on Dani despite the madness surrounding her. So many scenes search out her reaction that we stay rooted in her journey; the brutality is there to heighten her anxiety, and like many of the best horror movies, it builds a sympathetic bond between protagonist and audience. The movie reaches its peak as Dani finds herself lost in dance, the scene descending into a volley of superimposed shots as she flickers between confusion and mad glee, the image itself becoming a blur of layered images.

Through all these empathetic techniques, I was surprised to find that this film was building not to horror but a violent cathartic release. Midsommar so perfectly captures the desperate anger one feels toward a partner for the harm they have caused, ultimately embracing what is better repressed in reality.

Midsommar is a worthy successor to Hereditary, pursuing a similar trail of interpersonal relationships but casting it in an altogether different light. Aster merges theme and atmosphere like few others, to the point that his works almost transcend horror to something entirely new. These are stories of trauma and the need for release, milking human sympathy to create something altogether revelatory.

4.5 Stars Out of 5

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