Director: Ari Aster
Cast: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren
Running time: 147 minutes
Festivals, blue skies and glorious, glorious sunshine: just over a week ago, hundreds of thousands of people were departing a farm in Somerset, their hangovers and disregard for hygiene a small price to pay for a weekend of joyous warmth and wonderful memories to last a lifetime.
What a difference a week — or, more specifically, 147 minutes — can make.
Festivals – namely, ones involving secluded settlements in Sweden – get the Ari Aster treatment in Midsommar: the filmmaker’s much anticipated follow-up to his frightening but flawed debut feature Hereditary. Subjecting audiences to trippy terror and a hefty dose of pagan nastiness, as well as giving avid Glastonbury goers a thing or two to consider before next galivanting off to a field in the West Country, the film is a disturbing, disjointed descent into a darkness dressed in white.
Florence Pugh is on scintillating form as Dani: an American college student with insecurities stemming from a difficult domestic life and a precarious relationship with emotionally-distant boyfriend Christian (Reynor). She’s worried for her bipolar sister; he’s pushing for a break up: a sentiment supported in no subtle way by his friends and fellow postgrads — namely, the vocal, obnoxious Mark (Poulter).
Then, one night, an email sends Dani’s life spiralling toward devastating depths. In the aftermath, she decides to join Christian and his friends — Mark, Josh (Harper) and Pelle (Blomgren) — on a trip to Sweden for a midsummer celebration that takes place every ninety years at the ancestral commune where Pelle was raised.
On arrival, they are greeted by sunny, tranquil surroundings and quaint, smiling locals. But, after gradual exposure to enigmatic symbols and strange traditions, things slowly start to feel a little off. Their trip —both literal and drug-induced — eventually takes a turn for the worse, one that sees them entangled in the sinister ways of a mysterious cult.
This trip is hardly a unique one, of course. Remote locations, rural communities, rituals and robes are a staple of the horror genre, perhaps most famously played out on a small island in the British Isles with Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward and a massive wooden statue. But, while The Wicker Man’s prints are smeared all over the narrative beats of Midsommar, Aster’s film feel deviates somewhat from the conventions of straight up horror. Rather than a frantic festival of frights, Aster offers a patient, potent psychological drama, set in picturesque countryside, against blinding broad daylight.
Inversion helps embed the disconcerting aura Midsommar emits throughout its bulky running time. While its role is significant, it’s Aster’s human angle that buries under the skin deepest. This is relationship drama explored with intense, painful endurance, visualised through lingering camera shots and slow zooms. In a neat slice of irony, a place of great beauty engulfed in blossoming nature is the backdrop for a relationship on the verge of decay. As the minutes clock up and the tally of odd occurrences soars, characters’ psyche become increasingly fractured; their grasp of reality and rationale flittering away into the abyss.
And interweaving such moments is the thread that ties together the fabric of Aster’s entire body of work: family. In the same way Hereditary looks at the dynamic of a (dysfunctional) nuclear family, Aster’s Scandi-shocker places family, both biological and surrogate, at the centre of its beating, bloody heart. Dani’s existence is left shattered by an unimaginably painful family trauma — a brooding, blistering opening that, sadly, the rest of the film never quite matches — and subsequently travels to an environment defined by a very palpable sense of family: a community in which everyone is referred to as either ‘brother’ or ‘sister’.
This is no place of warmth or serenity, however. Hälsingland (although actually filmed in Hungary) is, rather, home to the weird and the whacky, the cryptic and the confusing. So, when the inevitable unpleasantness eventually does rear its head, it’s a commendably grisly, and darkly funny, return to Aster’s brand of lasting, affecting what-the-fuckery.
Midsommar certainly won’t be for everyone, however. Those who took issue with Hereditary’s pacing and less-than-satisfactory climax will likely unearth similar blemishes here. Even with its alluring set-up, Midsommar is a testing, two-and-a-half-hour foray that stubbornly refuses to offer explanation or provide answers in anything close to a neatly packaged bundle. Focus shifts at will, and, despite fine turns from both Pugh and Reynor, the film feels frustratingly drawn out. As a result, Aster’s sun-drenched second feature suffers from a whole that is notably weaker than the parts that constitute it. There are moments of genuinely nightmarish horror — some of this decade’s best — but spliced together with moments that emanate an overbearing sense of self-indulgence.
Aster’s festival of fear may be flawed, but it’s likely you’ll be thinking twice about stepping foot inside a florist’s anytime soon.