Zach Gilbert’s review published on Letterboxd:
Similar to the intense turmoil experienced by the couple at the core of Midsommar, my own experience with the film can only be properly described as a rollercoaster ride of mixed and ever-shifting emotions.
Midsommar is a gory, gritty, and grimy acid trip through the atrocities of inhumanity, unrelenting in its graphic depiction of unsalvageable physical and emotional pain. Immediately after the film ended, I felt both breathless and speechless, unable to make full sense of the striking imagery I had been exposed to. However, as the film’s undeniable and intoxicating influence worked its way through my mind, the greater thematic material that director-writer Ari Aster was working with soon began to unfold, and there is now absolutely no doubt in my mind that he has cemented himself as one of the most unique and impactful voices in horror.
Aster makes art that audiences are required to engage with; there is no room for passive viewership when it comes to his films. As I initially fell in and out of touch with the some of the later tumultuous twists and turns of Midsommar, there was still absolutely no moment in which I wasn’t 110% enraptured with the hypnotizing spell that Aster was crafting. Although I maintain that the story here can’t quite match the fine tuned finesse and nearly pitch-perfect pacing of his directorial debut, Hereditary, Aster has absolutely refined his craft to an immediately exemplary degree. His shot placement is practically without fault, as he never fails to frame his actors in the most effective light to emphasize their increasing mental strife, and he once again demonstrates an innate gift for shocking audiences with savage acts of terror and cruelty without ever lingering on these moments for too long. He pushes viewers to their limit, and just when we begin to have enough, he loosens his grip - but the impact is already immensely felt.
Aster’s long takes of the Swedish village that our protagonists find themselves in are fanciful and transfixing, and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski cultivates an atmosphere of whimsy and wonder that continues even after we’re exposed to a few more sinister sensibilities of the members of this community. The stark contrast between the neverending daylight of this eerie environment and the tense aloofness of the individuals that our lead characters come in contact with never fails to be anything other than absolutely unnerving. The score itself, orchestrated by The Haxan Cloak, is an additional force to be reckoned with, underscoring the undying uncertainty that clouds the film by incorporating both the typical ominous instrumental touches of the horror genre and raw, primal, animalistic audio to give this film its own unique, memorable feel.
When we address the central narrative of Midsommar, I truly cannot overemphasize the absolute perfection of the film’s opening scene. Everything prior to the title cards is quite frankly, flawless. This portion of the film could quite honestly work as it’s own short film, taught in film schools as the gold standard of subtle character development, curation of authentic tension, meticulous set-up and payoff, and absolutely labored and devoted direction. The events that unfold in this prologue have raw, wide-reaching effects on the story of Midsommar as a whole, and even if the rest of the film can’t ever quite match the majesty of those first 10 minutes, this introduction still strengthens everything that follows and pushes viewers through moments in which they otherwise might become disengaged.
It is in this opening scene that Florence Pugh establishes herself as not only the standout of the film, but as an absolute dynamo in terms of young Hollywood as well. Simply put, the future of the industry is bright with a performer this remarkable on the rise. She is tasked with incredibly challenging emotional material to tackle in both this prologue and the remainder of the film as a whole, and although this tricky balancing act would prove to be too much for a lesser actress, Pugh is no such woman. In such dark and depressing horror films of this nature, I can commonly feel cold at the film’s conclusion if I’m not given a character to properly engage and emphasize with - this recent Suspiria remake being a prime example. Luckily, Pugh’s Dani is an endlessly compelling and sympathetic individual who had my attention and support throughout the entire 147 minute feature, and the film’s final beats wouldn’t land if we hadn’t previously established this connection.
As the second half of the contentious couple at the center of Midsommar’s narrative, Jack Reynor is tasked with equally ambitious material, and I cannot compliment this young actor enough for wholeheartedly committing to the quite unpleasant actions he’s asked to undergo in the film’s climax and relaying a wholly convincing emotional and tragic arc throughout the unpleasantry of it all. Reynor is such a naturally charming actor, that even throughout Christian’s more disagreeable moments (he’s quite emotionally unavailable to Dani and very selfish), we still understand what continually draws Dani to him, and I personally never had any hatred towards the character in any capacity. He’s certainly flawed, and these shortcomings do stand out even moreso against Dani’s earnest and effortless compassion, but Reynor really complicates our feelings toward this young man, never painting him as a black and white antagonist.
The rest of the cast does a fine job with less rich material - Will Poulter particularly makes an impression with expertly timed dark comedy - but ultimately, the true stars of the film are Aster, Pugh, and Reynor.
I walked out of Midsommar with a bit more misgivings than I have now, as after the initial shock settled and I had more time to dissect the film from both a narrative and purely cinematic standpoint, I came to further enjoy it and appreciate it as a whole unit. The film is quite overlong and at times unwieldy with its aforementioned 147 minute runtime, and I’m still not entirely convinced it needed every scene or subplot, but as I take a step back back, I truly come to admire the mesmerizing experience that Aster creates here in its entirety. The film does telegraph its climax quite early on - I was able to guess the final outcome within the first 15 minutes - so this can make the seemingly inevitable last 30 minutes feel a bit drawn out, but when the final scene arrives and the ultimate, underlying purpose of all the prior increasing insanity is revealed, that payoff is immensely rewarding.
Midsommar is a heartbreaking horror drama about the inevitable deterioration of a toxic relationship and a fascinating portrayal of the hoops one must jump through in order to break free of this toxicity and reclaim their life to demand the attention and appreciation they deserve. However, as always with Aster, the messaging is never quite as clearcut as it seems, and at the end of the day, he leaves us with no definite heroes or villains on any side of the equation. There are no easy answers in Midsommar, and depending on who’s perspective you take, those final frames either resemble a victory or a tragedy. Midsommar may not be “scary” from a traditional, stereotypical studio horror movie sense, but the fears here are far more relatable, existential, and unnerving than anything found in your run of the mill thriller. We are blessed to be receiving such thought-provoking and boundary pushing fare in this increasingly commercialized day and age.
Simply put, no one in Hollywood is making movies like Ari Aster, and that’s both a good and bad thing.