Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter, Ellora Torchia
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…a sun-drenched, hallucinatory nightmare that doesn’t know when to end, or quite what it’s trying to say, but is enormously effective (albeit inconsistently) and a giddily uneasy ride into hell.
With 2018’s Hereditary, director Ari Aster crafted a confident and harrowing feature film debut with some unforgettable imagery and an Oscar-worthy (but predictably snubbed) performance by Toni Collette. Just a year and change later, the 33-year-old New Yorker is back with his sophomore effort, Midsommar, and crikey there’s a lot going on in this one.
Midsommar tells the tragic tale of Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh), a young woman who in the opening minutes of the movie loses her entire family in a fashion we won’t spoil, but is utterly devastating. She’s also saddled with a slack arse boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), who stays with her post-tragedy out of a sense of obligation, even inviting her on a holiday to Sweden with friends Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren); the latter of whom comes from the isolated commune where they’ll be staying. Naturally the idyllic, sunny commune isn’t quite as idyllic as it appears, and before too long events kick off, both bizarre and gruesome.
The concept of dopey Americans getting into fatal trouble overseas isn’t a new one. It’s been a staple of the horror genre as far back as An American Werewolf in London (1981), and more recently the formula was honed with the likes of Hostel (2005) and The Ruins (2008). However, what sets Midsommar apart is its weird commitment to digging into moments of real human drama and exploiting them for maximum audience discomfort. In lesser hands the cast of characters would be generic and dull – the jock, the slut, the funny guy etc. – but here they have layers. Christian is kind of a shiftless dickhead, it’s true, but Dani was also needy and insecure prior to her personal trauma. They’re a mismatched couple in a shitty relationship, and it’s explored in a subtle, layered fashion. This kind of commitment to a sense of emotional truth is, sadly, all too rare in modern genre cinema and it’s genuinely laudable.
That’s not to say Midsommar is an unqualified success, mind you. Similar to Hereditary, Midsommar’s best scenes occur in the first half. The opening is stunning, an ill-advised magic mushroom trip is a wonderfully well observed sequence and the first real incident at the commune is profoundly disturbing. However, the film weighs in at a hefty 147 minutes which is simply too long to sustain the slowburn tension with any consistency. The back half, therefore, is a bit of a mess, with genuinely harrowing moments awkwardly paired with goofy beats and subplots that simply go nowhere.
Performance-wise, Pugh owns the show, bringing real depth and pathos to a character brimming with uneasy self doubt and guilt. William Jackson Harper (Chidi from The Good Place) also delivers as an ambitious academic, but the best character is really the sunny environs of the cult (shot in Budapest, Hungary) and its grinning, white robed acolytes. It’s perhaps not quite the equal of the granddaddy of folk horror, The Wicker Man (1973), but it certainly has a red hot go with not a single tacky jumpscare to be seen.
Midsommar is a sun-drenched, hallucinatory nightmare that doesn’t know when to end, or quite what it’s trying to say, but is enormously effective (albeit inconsistently) and a giddily uneasy ride into hell. If you can look past its shortcomings, it offers an unusually nuanced take on relationships at the same time as delivering a story dripping with menace and dread. Ari Aster needs an editor, it’s true, but two films deep he has also proven a commitment to relentlessly resisting the urge to be ordinary.