Horror is a genre typically associated with the dark. Scary things hide in the dark, so daylight is our safety. Therefore, when horror is in the bright sunlight it is clear and in front of us, and so we must acknowledge and confront it as much as we don’t want to. There is no darkness for the things to hide in, but neither is there anywhere for us to hide. There is nowhere we can turn to for safety and comfort. Such is the case in Ari Aster’s latest offering.
Where his previous film Hereditary felt oppressive and claustrophobic in the close quarters of the family’s home with no reprieve or escape, Midsommar and its horrifying madness is in never-ending daylight in wide open spaces, yet its characters, and us the audience, are just as trapped.
After a family tragedy Dani (Florence Pugh) accompanies her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to Pelle’s home village in Sweden for their midsummer festivities, a place where reality and insanity go hand in hand.
It feels a little unfair to compare Midsommar to The Wicker Man, especially when Aster himself has preferred to think of it as “The Wizard of Oz for perverts”, but there is an undeniable connection with Robin Hardy’s folk horror classic. Both have a deliberate slow pace and build-up, both put their most disturbing scenes in broad daylight, and both address belief and how we react to beliefs outside of our world view.
Midsommar brings that to the present day and can be seen as commenting about the attitudes towards unfamiliar culture. Christian and Josh are the overly respectful, and Mark is the flippant disrespect, and the film shows how both attitudes are dangerous and harmful. Even after things get to the point where any sane person would have hotwired the village truck and made a run for it, these guys are bickering over academic authenticity, talking about cultural differences, and making meat tarts, which is infuriating to watch, and also a little hilarious.
In fact, the movie is quite funny, and deliberately so. We chuckle along at the absurdity and awkwardness, usually courtesy of Will Poulter’s Mark and his dark comedic delivery, until it gets to that point where the laughter trails off and it sinks in that what is happening is no laughing matter. I wouldn’t say that I found the movie to be scary, more disturbing and uneasy, but that just makes it all the harder to shake off. There is a fair bit of violent gore on display here, and always used effectively in a way that punctuates the scene.
There is so much attention to detail visually. The village, the clothing, the designs of the folk art, all are beautifully realised and feel authentic. However, the constant sunlight also makes the village an otherworldly thing, a fairyland that the protagonists have stumbled into and now may never be able to leave. It’s disorientating for them and coupled with the long and deliberate pacing of the film means that it’s much the same for an audience.
Aster seems to have a knack for putting viewers right into the emotional frying pan alongside the characters. You emerge from Midsommar unsure if hours have passed or if it has somehow been days. Time has become warped, again much like a fairyland where you spend hours and come out to discover it has been years. Cinematography is once again provided by Pawel Pogorzelski and is stunning and hypnotic with irregular movements, angles, and shot composition, which lends to that disorientation. Particularly, with the simmering effect that runs through any substance-enhanced sequences. So many shots you want to frame on your wall, and likewise so many are going to be seared on your brain to come back and haunt you when you least expect it. Not to be outdone by the visuals, the soundtrack makes you feels like you’re drowning in noise at times alongside the whimsically enticing folk music.
Florence Pugh is the real star of the film though and is nothing short of amazing. She really goes through the emotional wringer here onscreen and remains a vulnerable and engaging presence throughout. Grief and how we get through it and how the people around us help, or don’t as the case may be, is a big part of the film, something it also shares with Hereditary. Dani is already a troubled soul when we first meet her, worried about her family after a worrying email from her sister, is on medication, and is referred to has having a therapist.
Likewise, her relationship with Christian is already strained, he and his friends talk about how he has been wanting to break up with her for some time, and so it can be inferred that his staying with her after the Dani’s personal tragedy is out of a sense of duty more than anything else. Dani’s journey and everything she goes through in the film ends in a place that is both horrifying yet strangely satisfying and will drive a lot of the conversation about the film in the future.
Much like with Hereditary, Midsommar is going to prove to be highly divisive. Not everyone is going to get on board with the film’s pace, mood, and moments of extremely disturbing violence, and that is one of the things I think is so great about it. Great horror should invoke extreme reactions and discussion and should put us through these dark reflections of our own emotions to the point of being uncomfortable.
As for me, I found it to be a mesmerising, expertly crafted, and overwhelming experience with plenty of mystery and ambiguity to ponder over. Ari Aster is a filmmaker who pulls no punches in making the audience experience the full scope of the intense stories he tells, and I cannot wait to see what depths he takes us to next.