This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Ryan_M’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
The 2010's have seen a resurgence in the independent horror film, specifically auteur-driven horror, making for a refreshing deviation from the jump scare fodder that, until recently, had a chokehold on cinema showtimes. One of the companies to thank for this is A24, who in recent years have released several effective horror films, or at least if they weren't, they were at least more ambitious than the usual slasher thriller, with titles like The Witch and It Comes at Night.
But for my money, their biggest hit was newcomer Ari Aster's Hereditary, a deeply unsettling and terrifying movie that merged familial grief with psychological and supernatural dread, that I still attest is the decade's finest horror film. Now a year later, Aster is back with another unsettling horror, this time set amongst the summer solstice festivities of a Swedish village in Midsommar. This is definitely from the same man responsible for Hereditary, an even more ambitious, unsettling, heady, and at times surprisingly comical calling card, cementing him as a new master of the genre.
Between his two films, Aster seems to have a particular eye for stories dealing with mental illness and grief. Our main audience surrogate takes the form of Dani, played by Florence Pugh, swallowed up by recent bereavement in her family, and the subsequent depression it's led her to. She's taken to a mechanical apathy, punctuated by sudden, uncontrollable bursts of tears. In fact, even before her grief, this seems to have become a natural trend. By outward appearances, she's developed a seemingly manic clinginess, to the annoyance of her boyfriend Christian, played by Jack Reynor. The passion in this relationship appears to have died out, as Christian mainly stays with Dani out of obligation, even though he's visibly dissatisfied, and become quite scornful as a result.
But Christian and his friends have some big plans for their summer, heading to Sweden on holiday, specifically to take part in a small village festival, held only once every 90 years. On a whim, Christian invites Dani along on the trip, who seizes the change of scenery. At first, the village appears to be a humble, tightly-knit community of familial ideals, but if you've ever seen a horror movie before, you know that there's something much more sinister underneath that facade, as the customs of the people, and the horror of the festivities, reveal the shocking true colors of this place.
Despite its horror footing, Midsommar is more accurately a breakup film, inspired by Aster's own experience with a difficult separation. We're introduced to Dani and Christian amidst some serious tension in their lives, as Dani has become obsessively concerned with her sister's wellbeing, to the point of becoming reliant on Christian's encouragement to make it through the day. But try as these two might, they feel like a couple that should not be together, given the fact that they rarely ever see anything on equal footing. Christian feels woefully unprepared to serve as caretaker to Dani, as the lack of passion has made him easily frustrated, with his friends desperately egging him on to leave Dani, and jump in bed with the next girl he sees. What may have started as a loving relationship has now become toxic and tainted, with one desperate to back out of it, but the other so dependent on it just to get out of bed in the morning, she's significantly lowered her own self-value.
Once we arrive in the village, the film, and Dani, begin to pep up significantly, but in some very twisty ways. It's in this transition that the film becomes a demented Wizard of Oz, shot in bright saturated colors and wide framing, offsetting the more disturbing qualities of the film, as the cast of characters attempt to understand and adapt to the strange new setting. Some have chosen to form reports and theses out of their experiences, but more often they've come on an escapist whim. And so, the worldview of the visiting tourists clash sharply with the land inhabitants, their community built on ideals of respect for the earth around you, and the belief of never taking history for granted. There's quite a number of effective themes at play, varying from emasculation by humiliation, damaging self-repression, societies that grossly under serve their elderly citizens (emphasis on gross), strength found and kinship formed through traumatizing adversity, and possibly more that I may not have been able to catch on first glance.
As such, and with the bizarro aura surrounding the village, Midsommar is a very strange film to digest. But the beauty of the film is how keenly it's aware of this, and so Aster and co. decide to embrace the strangeness, and have fun with it. With its subject matter, Midsommar is more disturbing than it is outright scary, and a lot of that comes through in the pitch black sense of humor, where the film is at its most sardonic and sadistic in nature. There are more overt, broad comical gags present in the film, some of which involving Will Poulter as one of the visiting tourists, hilariously oblivious to the screwy nature of the village. But more often, the humor of the film comes from the film's most unflinching and uncomfortable moments, especially as the wildness keeps piling up, culminating in its wild third act. Imagine if Wes Anderson and Yorgos Lanthimos had a lovechild, and that lovechild made Nicolas Cage's The Wicker Man, and you have some idea what to expect of the film's freakish, unapologetic surreal nature.
But to Aster's credit, such a vibe never overwhelms the greater focal point of the film, as once again his craft and skill with the story are on point. Even if the film doesn't match the scare factor of Hereditary, the dread he establishes leaves it dripping with disquieting anxiety, and a gruesome touch that even the strongest of stomachs may feel queasy over. But the cinematography, headed by Pawel Pogorzelski, is breathtaking in spite of even the most bloody of images. There's such a seamless, beautiful attention to detail in every image of the film, every shot able to stand apart as their own individual paintings, especially with the figures offset by the whites of the harsh daytime lighting, that give the film this surreal dreamlike appearance.
But like Hereditary before it, this movie lives and breathes on the strength of its leading lady. With Florence Pugh, already fresh off a strong turn in Fighting with My Family, and with Greta Gerwig's upcoming Little Women, we may as well pencil her in for performer of the year. Her central performance is a tremendous achievement, a devastating portrait of a wayward, unbalanced woman on the brink of mental collapse, given new purpose and self-acceptance through her new settings. It's a wide range of feelings she has to lay out, varying from the most subtle of thousand yard stares and bottled up sadness and anger, to the more showy emotional distress that she experiences through her alarming outbursts and release, as well as an added, budding layer of confidence running its way through, especially getting into the final scenes where she's at her most cathartic. It's a really powerful performance, that shows Pugh as a star in the making.
Midsommar may not be quite as scary as Hereditary was, but it's still no less of an outstanding film. Even if it may be light on more overt horror, in favor of a more psychological slant and dark humor, it proves no less unsettling with its sickly, hypnotic, perplexing singular vision. And this was only the first go around. I still feel like there was more I didn't catch on first viewing, or that I haven't done justice to in this review. I'm eager to give this film another watch, to see how well its spooks and quirks hold up on re-evaluation, and to see what other subtle secrets it yields. It's not always an easy sit, but it is incredibly entertaining, and another impressive step for Aster's directorial career. Enjoy the festivities!