Ari Aster’s sophomore effort Midsommar is not so much a horror film in the modern sense of the word. It’s not made for theme park thrills or excited giggles following a quick fright. It’s a horror film in the traditional sense of the word, it’s meant to horrify and disturb and, surprisingly, make you laugh. Midsommar is a horrifying essay on human nature, relationships, and anxiety, and it’s wickedly funny too.
Anxiety’s an asshole, especially on vacation. I would know, I have it. Most vividly when going through major life changes, going on vacation, or using psychotropic drugs. As protagonist Dani, Florence Pugh delivers maybe the greatest screen performance and embodiment of a person suffering from debilitating anxiety. Her life is a checklist of triggers: she suffers an unspeakable family tragedy, uses psychedelic mushrooms, and tags along on a man-heavy trip to the wooded bowels of rural Sweden. To add insult to injury she’s currently in an odd place with long-time boyfriend and apparent douchebag Christian (Jack Reynor). His pals Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper) have been telling him to break it off for months, so they’re less than enthused when Christian surprises them with her own invitation to their coveted, long- awaited bro-out to northern Europe, where the women are supposedly blonde and bubbly and fond of Americans. You’ve heard Aster and cast members call this a “breakup movie’ ad nauseum, so I won’t dwell on that so much except to say that it’s a simpler, more coherent metaphor than the complex messaging we saw at play in Us earlier this year. By the end, the tense moments between Dani and Christian are more uncomfortable than the violent, batshit crazy rituals of a Swedish/Nordic cult. Aster has made a horror film about a dysfunctional and doomed relationship, and it shows in one erotic, iconic scene that is delirious, hilarious, and disturbing all at once.
From the opening five minutes it’s heir apparent that Aster is operating on a level few horror filmmakers can achieve. Is he the next great horror maestro? It’s difficult to say considering most of them we peg as such often move on to other genres. His command of space, lighting, color, and production design, his methodical use of camera and depth of field to highlight exactly what he wants you to see, all of it works in unison to produce some of the most technically sound photography and editing you’re likely to see this year. Despite the ugliness on display, it’s a gorgeous film. Midsommar also includes one of the more accurate representations of the effects of psychedelic drugs. Too often are they exaggerated on film, with users acting drunk, not high, or wild hallucinations crossing that line of disbelief. Dani’s trip on a farm is chock-full of subtle effects and malformations to the grass, sky, and other greenage. They’re quite beautiful to behold and Aster has a unique talent for placing the audience in the eyes and ears of his characters. But much like my own experience, the anxiety kicks in at a moment’s notice, like a cop kicking in a door to ruin your good time. Her ongoing grief and insecurities bubble to the surface whilst undergoing scrutiny from cult members, her fellow travelers, and her own boyfriend. She’s at the mercy of men who don’t want her around, peak social anxiety at its finest. From a bad trip at the beginning of their trip to an astonishing moment of betrayal, Dani is put through the ringer and then some, and Pugh wrings every ounce of pathos out of her character’s torrid situation.
As her distant boyfriend, Jack Reynor finally enjoys a proper coming-out party, in more ways than one. He’s quiet and doesn’t aim high for gross theatrics, which is perfect because that’s exactly who Christian is at heart, a lazy asshole who doesn’t aim high and doesn’t want emotional baggage with his sex on the beach-err-barn. He’s a boorish guy pretending to be a nice guy, and that’s never more apparent than when he tries covering for Dani’s forgotten birthday with a quick piece of cake and a candle. This half-hearted attempt belies a complete lack of shit given towards her as a person, even in the face of what is clearly the worst time in her life. Bill Harper and a delightfully loutish Will Poulter provide entertaining color commentary as the ten day festival’s increasingly macabre events unfold. Their other friend is Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), a Swedish immigrant who hails from the great white Harga and embroils them all in the community and its customs. His motives for bringing them into a veritable bear’s den are inscrutable, and they hardly matter. Aster is more concerned with allowing his audience to soak in the vibe of this place, the traditions, and the inevitable fate of these tourists. Indeed, there’s a fatalistic note that follows all of them, as if telegraphing their impending doom from the very first frame to the last, sometimes doing so quite literally. During a bad break-up the signs are there well in advance, screaming at you to cut loose and run for your life. Dani and the gang might be more than a stone’s throw from civilization, but regardless, they’re too preoccupied with their own American drama and a very human tendency to want to avoid offending these odd people.
Ari Aster’s craft is second to none in the genre right now and with that talent he has dreamt up a fucked-up, horrific fairy tale whose main purpose is bringing solace to a depressed Millennial woman. How that occurs and how he gets there is where much fun is had, no matter the visceral consequences. Midsommar is trippy, funny, and only mildly scary, and yet it’s the best horror film so far this year, possibly of the last five years.