Watch the walls. Director Ari Aster’s advice to cinema-goers heading out to see his second directorial feature may seem strange, but it makes sense once you see it. Aster’s Hereditary (2018) follow-up is sunny, funny and so pretty you barely notice the horror.
Our protagonist Dani is reaching the end of a four-year relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor), an uninterested, inattentive boyfriend who wanted to end it months ago but stayed with Dani when tragedy befalls her and her family. Dani joins Christian and his pals Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Swedish native Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) for a nine day once-in-a-lifetime festival celebrating midsommar in Pelle’s hometown of Halsingland.
After a fairly slow opening, we are introduced to the blue skies and sunshine of Halsingland and it’s inhabitants, the Harga. The Harga are a community who wear flower crowns and wholesome white linen. They greet their guests with ethereal folk song and an unrelenting supply of hallucinogenic tea. They dance around the maypole and force their elders to leap from a cliff top onto a stone slab when they reach 72. Oh, and if they don’t die straight away, they then lovingly bash their heads in with a giant wooden hammer. But it’s a cultural thing ya know.
Chaos ensues, slowly. Aster seems unconcerned with creating any sense of palpable sense of dread but really, it doesn’t seem to matter. What is horrific is beautiful. What is traumatic is mesmerising. The sheer brightness of the picture creates to a strangely contented feeling that you only realise is odd once you leave the cinema, and the more you think about it, the more you love it.
Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski do a cracking job at creating a creeping sense of dread that seeps into every sun-soaked frame – pagan oddities are strewn about the village, ancient runes and banners adorned with dreamy depictions of unsavoury rituals.
Much of the film’s emotional core is carried superbly by Florence Pugh who plays Dani. Her commitment to Dani’s grief and paranoia is ferocious. The rest of the cast suffer from a lack of an internal life; Christian and Josh are embroiled in academic rivalry and Mark is the classic bro who just wants to get laid and is inevitably the first to get picked off.
It’s never quite as distressing, as emotional or as horrifying as it’s predecessor – nor is it as horrifying as its pagan horror forebears; The Ritual, The Wickerman or Kill List. While Midsommar has succeeded in polarising audiences, I don’t think it’s quite as dreadful, or masterful, as some critics would have you believe. Rather, Midsommar is more of a tipped hat and a wink to the horror genre. It’s funny (if you’re unsure whether the humour is intended, I can reassure you that it is), it’s gory and above all, it’s ambitious.
What Midsommar isn’t, is a scary movie. Rather, it’s a truly messy break-up movie. It’s like watching a friend come to the end of an incredibly toxic relationship, and breathing a heady sign of relief when they finally realise what a bastard their partner had been all this time. Predictable? Of course it is. It’s like every break-up you’ve ever gone through a million times before, minus a bear carcass here and there. Midsommar is a slow, methodical unveiling of horrors that are only too recognisable.
If you don’t like it now, give it a week. I guarantee you’ll come around.