Director Ari Aster broke out last year with his critically-acclaimed debut, Hereditary. Alongside Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us), Aster positioned himself as a filmmaker to watch. Earlier this year, A24 Films released Aster’s follow-up project, Midsommar. A slice of folk horror in the vein of The Wicker Man, Midsommar once again divided critics and audiences. In spite of the movie’s divisiveness, there’s little disputing the buzz Aster’s latest effort generated. Is Midsommar over-hyped art-house fare? Or has Aster deliver another destined-to-be-a-class horror movie?
Following the death of her parents and sister, college student Dani joins her boyfriend, Christian, and his friends for a summer getaway to Sweden. Swedish exchange student Pelle has invited the group to the commune where he was raised. His community, the Harga, are celebrating midsummer – an event they only commemorate every 90 years. But the increasingly strange behaviour of the commune’s residents and their pagan rituals unsettles Dani.
Slow, Strange Burn for Horror Fans
Midsommar is an idiosyncratic folk horror movie that consistently eschews traditional horror techniques. Specifically, Aster avoids jump scares or the familiar use of quick editing and loud sounds to elicit shocks. In fact, Midsommar’s approach to its often horrific imagery is almost benign. Though there isn’t technically much explicit violence, Aster’s framing of violence is almost casual, thereby increasing the shock value. When one character smashes a face with a mallet, Aster doesn’t include the familiar production cues (e.g., music, editing) to remind the audiences it isn’t real. As a result, the violence, even while sporadic, is much more disturbing.
Midsommar also wisely establishes an ambiguous sense of dread from the early going. So while things movie somewhat slowly, Midsommar demands your full attention.
In terms of the movie’s pacing, Midsommar is a methodical example of folk horror. In addition to pressing close to the two and a half hour mark, Aster opts for a slow burn approach. Yes, things happen slowly as a result. But Aster’s screenplay also doesn’t rely on lazy exposition. Increasingly odd things transpire, often unexplained, thus requiring your full attention. Midsommar also wisely establishes an ambiguous sense of dread from the early going. So while things movie somewhat slowly, Midsommar demands your full attention. And as the movie becomes steadily unnerving, the payoff is rewarding. When Aster can make something as innocuous as a ‘Maypole Dance’ tense, you know he’s doing horror right.
Midsommar and the Horror of Toxic Relationships
At its core, Hereditary was a movie about the multi-generational effects of dysfunctional family dynamics. For Midsommar, Aster borrows the folk horror template to tell what’s essentially a story about toxic relationships. Early in the movie, Aster characterizes Dani as struggling with mental health issues, even before her family tragedy. Several scenes establish her as overly dependent and a strain on doting boyfriend, Christian. It’s a caricature not unfamiliar to poplar culture.
But as the story unfolds, Aster increasingly casts a more critical gaze on Christian himself. Midsommar peels away at Christian’s ‘good boyfriend’ demeanor, slowly revealing him as emotionally distance and even more insecure and needy than Dani. Despite his friends’ protests, he won’t leave Dani because he doesn’t want to be alone. Christian’s insecurity is no more evident than when he latches onto his friend’s PhD thesis subject. As Dani’s status in the commune increases, Christian turns to infidelity to feed his insecurity.
Florence Pugh a Dynamic Powerhouse in Midsommar
Most of Midsommar’s cast will be unfamiliar to audiences. Arguably, Will Poulter is the most recognizable actor given his past exposure in bigger movies. To date, Poulter has shown up in The Maze Runner movies and Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch. Jack Reynor impresses as the emotionally distant boyfriend, Christian. There’s a subtly to his performance that perfectly aligns with the movie’s themes. Fans of Netflix’s The Good Place will recognize William Jackson Harper. Like Poulter, Harper’s role is minor, but he’s equally strong.
If Toni Collette stole the spotlight in Hereditary, Florence Pugh’s performance is similarly mesmerizing. Earlier this year, Pugh headlined wrestling drama, Fighting with my Family. She’s also slated to appear in the Black Widow solo movie. In Midsommar, Pugh gives a complex performance that elevates what’s already a strong movie. She absolutely convinces as a woman, emotionally struggling and initially horrified by her surroundings, who slowly finds acceptance. Much of the movie’s drama relies on Pugh’s performance, and she more than delivers.
Midsommar a Chilling, But Challenging, Sophomore Effort
Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary, Midsommar, is similarly chilling and shocking. Like its predecessor, Midsommar is also a methodical and idiosyncratic horror movie. As a result, it’s a movie that may be too challenging for audiences looking for more straightforward scares. At nearly two and a half hours, Midsommar may also demand too much patience from viewers. But there’s no disputing the unique vision and talent Aster brings to his folk horror movie. Regardless of its length, Aster knows how to meticulously weave in a mounting sense of discomfort periodically punctuated by shocking violence. Though its appeal my be limited to art-house horror fans, Midsommar is another undeniably effective horror movie from Aster.