I struggled for a way to begin this review. As a huge fan of Hereditary, I was under no illusions about what to expect from Ari Aster’s latest cinematographic offering and, if I am being honest, had done a bit of mental preparation for what was to come. Unpacking Hereditary had been incredibly satisfying, but also an emotional chore. Going into Midsommar, I wanted to be prepared for the inevitable, emotional cataclysm so that I could experience, internalise, and analyze what I saw rather than sit in traumatic, stunned silence with the rest of the audience. But, for the second time, Aster has managed to pull the rug out from under me with a film of such surprising depth that I’m not sure how one begins critiquing it with without interrogating it first — a task that would necessitate spoilers and defeat the purpose of this review. But shucks, let’s give it a go.
First off, as far as I am concerned, Midsommar isn’t a horror film.
Yes, the story contains horrific and unsettling events, but trying to simplify these down to the level of base horror tropes is not only doing a disservice to the film but also setting oneself up for disappointment. I can already hear the gripes and grumblings of the dissatisfied hoard, lamenting the absence of jump-scares, sickle-wielding village maniacs, or throaty screams, but with Midsommar, Aster isn’t trying to scare you. He’s presenting you with something so alien that it appears horrific and inviting you to explore it, to accept it and, ultimately, become complicit in it. With warmth and heart, he normalizes the horror. And that’s the bit that’s scary.
Needless to say, this is not a date movie.
On the surface, the film is about five friends and doctoral students on a trip to visit a remote village in Sweden and observe a local folk ritual that plays out every ninety years. This trip is instigated by Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), a psychology graduate who hails from their destination, and driven by Josh (William Jackson Harper) who plans to document the ritual as part of his anthropology thesis. The film’s central pair are Dani, expertly performed by Florence Pugh, and Christian, played by Jack Reynor, a couple whose strained relationship becomes the emotional lynchpin of the film. The slow, initially awkward, and eventually unnerving dissolution of their relationship — one built on trauma and emotional cowardice — juxtaposes perfectly the slowly unwinding tapestry of ever more sublime, uneasy, and eventually terrifying events.
Those paying attention will note the early allusion towards psychological archetypes emerging amongst the friends, a clue that the film intends to be more that a run-of-the-mill hack ‘em slash ‘em. While each character is a mere shadow alongside Pugh’s performance as the desperately lost Dani (more on that in a bit), the cast adequately embodies each of their clearly defined roles, though the surly ‘fool’ antics of Will Poulter’s Mark are a little too on-the-nose, even for me. While executed well enough, the character’s seemingly willful indifference and lack of empathy seems out of place amongst a group of academics and is perhaps a carry-over from the script’s previous iteration as a straightforward slasher.
Pugh’s Dani, however, is riveting. If the unravelling events of the film are parallel to her dissolving relationship, then the village itself is representative of her strained and tortured unconscious. Still evidently adrift in an unimaginable trauma that plays out early on in the film, she clings desperately to the fraying strands of her decaying relationship, refusing to accept the truth of her scenario for fear of becoming untethered and drowning in a life over which she feels she has lost control.
And here is my argument’s crux; Midsommar is an exploration of trauma—actual, psychological trauma—and the internalisation and slow, painful process of self-actualization necessary for traumatic healing to begin. The film is about finding agency after an event that has seemingly stripped you of your free will. It’s about treading water in a sea of emotional turmoil, utterly convinced that you’ll drown at any moment, your feet desperately searching the dark water beneath for a stepping stone, a foothold, anything that will help you keep your head above water, if only for a second.
In this regard, it is the perfect next step in filmmaking for Ari Aster to have taken after Hereditary.
Ari carefully and maliciously strips both his characters and audience of any modicum of control. Within the bounds of the story, the characters are regularly administered mild hallucinogenics as they are slow groomed for the events to come. Their autonomy is carefully and deliberately removed as, one by one, the abrasives are lanced and the susceptible subsumed. In what are easily the most unnervingly accurate portrayals of a psilocybin trip, even the audience is regularly forced to question what they are seeing as, at the corner of the screen or at a slight peripheral to central focus, tree bark subtly marches up a bough, or a flower begins to blink atop a laurel wreath. Whole scenes are carefully designed to disorientate and discombobulate with striking, often mildly nauseating effect. Add to this Ari’s early and incredible use of both visual and auditory transitions—cutting from piercing waits into cutting rain, cycling the camera in, out, and through mirrors and windows, and repeatedly rotating the angle, once for so long that the sky and the ground seems to switch places as your eyes adjust — and the audience is drawn so deep, and so tightly wound, into the narrative that it becomes impossible to tell whether you’re watching a simple horror film, a reflected or refracted trauma-induced dream sequence, or an abject, exploratory analogy.
It’s uncomfortable, unnerving, and utterly riveting.
I felt drained by the end of Midsommar. But the part of me left empty isn’t lamenting what was lost. It’s chomping at the bit in anticipation of what future experiences might fill the space that is left, harrowing or otherwise.
Once again, hats off to Ari Aster.
Midsommar is uncomfortable, unnerving, and utterly riveting. It's also masterful filmmaking. Insightful and beautifully woven to tell a striking story.
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