Sometimes the scariest thing in the world is an unanswered email. In a world of constant communication, response is expected and normal, so when we can’t find that affirmation, the fear of possibility sets in. Midsommar understands, as well if not better than any movie in recent memory, that mesh point between culturally accepted practices and all-encompassing terror. In our everyday actions we now find mundane, the unknown hangs over everything we do.
From Director Ari Aster, Midsommar is the story of dysfunctional couple Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), who embark on a trip to a Swedish commune with a group of friends in order to write a graduate thesis on local customs. Saying anything more about the plot may spoil the genuine excitement and horror of the film’s many twists and turns, but in a way, plot is secondary to Midsommar’s atmospheric appeal. Ultimately the film is less a traditional thriller and more a downward spiraling fever dream, loaded with anxiety, beauty, family and violence.
Aster goes to great lengths to create one of the most visually original films of the decade, conveying the beautiful tension of the ever-bright commune setting. At times overzealous in his reach, Aster’s knack for creating visuals excels when he allows his camera to be still, slowly capturing elegant landscape and its dread inducing inhabitants. In creating this isolated community, a viewer marvels at Aster’s attention to detail, as every symbol has a meaning and all of the geography matters.
As far as the performances are concerned, Florence Pugh as Dani is easily one of the best of 2019, cycling through moments of despairing grief, withholding combativeness and drug-fueled euphoria. Her steadiness and ability to ground Midsommar’s inherent absurdity is truly virtuosic, and with an Oscar nomination for her performance in Little Women, Pugh has already established herself as one of the most exciting young actresses on the planet.
On the other end of the acting spectrum is Jack Reynor as Christian. Reynor is often overmatched in the role, having to walk a delicate balance between a distracted, apathetic boyfriend archetype and a domineering horror protagonist. In a way, this feels purposeful; Christian’s own anxiety has to always be in service to Dani’s tragic story, as she navigates moments of intense trauma and loss. As a result, Reynor has no choice but to downplay Christian as a dimmer, distracted character.
For the supporting cast, Aster relies on established talents William Jackson Harper and Will Poulter to play Dani and Christian’s fish out of water companions. While Harper opts for a steady, curiously questioning performance, Poulter fully leans into his character’s innate cartoonish quality, adding to Midsommar’s sense of grim, anxious comedy. In addition to the Americans, the cast is rounded out by members of the commune, plentiful in number, with one or two constantly lurking on the edge of every frame once the group arrives in Sweden. Their natural pale stillness haunts the film, begging the question of what this community has in store.
As Aster’s follow-up to the acclaimed 2018 film, Hereditary, he has now clearly established himself as a premiere voice in demented horror filmmaking. Rather than relying on cheap scares or sheer gruesomeness, Aster fully exploits an audience’s unease and anxiety. By having the film take place in constant daylight, Aster has found a way to disorient an audience, giving them a similar hallucinogenic sensation as the imperiled protagonist, using nature to create existential dread.
With all of that said, what really drives Midsommar is Dani and Christian’s decaying relationship. While still terrifying, the movie might have more in common with Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir than with classic horror fare. Hogg’s film obviously opts for a much more tactile approach, but both search for answers as to why relationships fail, and what their value is to begin with.
Midsommar isn’t exactly about horror or systems of belief or pagan ritual; Midsommar is really interested in the lengths humans go to in order to establish legitimate emotional connection. In the effort to connect, relationships form and disintegrate, lives are created and ended, fear is encountered and ignored. Aster understands that regardless of community, ritual, or circumstance, that desire for belonging underscores all action humans partake in. Midsommar doesn’t want to be a slasher film set in Sweden; it wants to explain what we do and why we do it.