Much like how Jordan Peele made quite a different beast with Us compared to his directorial debut Get Out, director Ari Aster has similarly taken great pains to ensure that his second directorial effort, Midsommar, is different from his initial directorial debut, last years Hereditary. Whereas that 2018 Toni Collette horror film was a grim contemplation of the cycle of abuse that oozed dread in every frame, Midsommar is a more loosey-goosey laidback horror comedy set in Sweden that utilizes the broad plot outline and character types of The Wizard of Oz. Aster’s penchant for not just resting on his laurels is already admirable and it only helps matters that, when just taken as its own horror movie, Midsommar is a chilling and unique feature.
Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) is in the middle of a family tragedy that’s seen her parents and sister killed simultaneously. Stricken with immense grief, the only person she can turn to her is her slimy boyfriend Christian Hughes (Jack Reynor). Just as she’s going through all her personal misery, Hughes prepares for a trip with his three college buddies to a remote community in Sweden to observe a midsummer ritual that occurs only once every 90 years. Once Ardor learns about this trip, Hughes reluctantly invites her with them to this Sweden community, which looks like the very definition of a paradise. Over the course of this celebration, though, some unexpectedly gruesome occurrences begin to make one wonder just what’s really going on in this village.
Midsommar is a different creature from Hereditary in a lot of ways, but like that film, Aster is using a frequently gruesome slow-burn horror film as a means for thoughtful character exploration. In this case, the exploration is of Dani Ardor’s personal emotional problems related to the loss of her family and the fact that much of her emotional support comes from a boyfriend who’s always looking out for himself This internal issue the protagonist grapples with offers up lead actor Florence Pugh the chance to deliver her second (albeit, slightly more emotionally harrowing) extremely memorable lead turn of 2019 following her remarkable work in Fighting With My Family.
Pugh makes it clear she’s going to deliver an unflinching depiction of Ardor’s misery and troubles even during the prologue of Midsommar, which sees Pugh delivering realistically unpolished sobs in response to the loss of her family that honestly disturbed me more than any of the gruesome imagery that cropped up in the later scenes of the film. From there, Pugh constantly maintains a sense of realism in her depiction of how Ardor is both reeling from both her personal tragedy and struggling to find proper emotional support in these trying times. There are parts of Ari Aster’s script that do feel like they’re getting too wrapped up in the creepy eccentricities of the Swedish villagers while ignoring the personal plight of its protagonist, but luckily, Pugh is always on hand with her outstanding performance to ensures that Ardor’s perspective is constantly around to some degree.
Though they might sometimes feel like a distraction from Andor’s experiences, even the most extraneous of the assorted detours into the oddball antics of the village Andor and company have become trapped in do tend to successfully reinforce the calm yet eerie vibe of the overall movie. While we’re watching some of the villagers cook or a leader figure of the village explain what their scripture means, supporting characters quietly disappear in the background as if they vanished in a puff of smoke. While tourist trap activities play out in the foreground, Midsommar subtly communicates that something far more sinister is transpiring in the background, which creates an extremely unnerving atmosphere.
Adding to that atmosphere is the visuals, which rely entirely on natural exterior light to create a brightly lit landscape littered with beautiful foliage that makes this Swedish village look like a dream even when it’s home to activities that could only come from your worst nightmares. Much like Hannibal or Annihilation, Midsommar renders the most horrific sights with beautiful imagery and bright colors, creating a juxtaposition that’s at once chilling and breathtaking. I also like how, between the treehouse in Hereditary and Midsommar’s shacks with tilted roofs or giant yellow triangle building, Aster has a tendency to take locations whose appearance and color palette like they came straight out of a children’s book and then uses them in his stories to make as places where misery flourish.
Aster’s brilliantly meticulous direction that places an emphasis on prolonged wide angle shots truly allows one to appreciate all the intricate visual details of this uniquely sunny yet terrifying tale. Such shots also tend to allow the mood of various scenes to really linger, particularly any of the discomfort generated in the arguments between Dani and Christian. Aster’s direction also tends to help the execution of the various pieces of dark comedy scattered throughout the film, an element of the production that Jack Reynor and his wholly committed slimeball performance also excel in. Clearly, you get a lot of bang for your buck with Midsommar. What other Summer 2019 movie is offering you dark comedy, whimsical yet eerie production design and scares? Though not as good as Hereditary (that was always gonna be a high bar to clear), Midsommar is still an extremely well-crafted descent into gorgeously rendered terror whose most egregious mistake was not finding a spot for a Swedish Chef cameo.