When Ari Aster told The Verge last year that he didn’t “necessarily consider [himself] a horror filmmaker,” it was a telling humblebrag for Aster’s debut feature, Hereditary. That prestige fright flick earned critical accolades across the board — for Toni Collette’s captivating performance, for its disorienting cinematography, for its eerie, enveloping soundtrack, and so on.
With his follow-up film, Midsommar, Aster again pushes against the lowbrow connotations of genre film with an art-house horror movie that is as enveloping, tense and compelling as his debut.
Aster quickly establishes the underlying conflict between protagonist Dani (Florence Pugh) and her ambivalent grad-student boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). Among his friends, Josh (William Jackson Harper), Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) and Mark (Will Poulter), Christian has made clear his intention to break up with Dani — until a family trauma keeps him from following through. Further looking to defer conflict, Christian brings Dani along on the boys’ summer trip to Pelle’s Swedish hometown, to celebrate the midsummer festival.
Amid the existing tensions, the Americans are acutely aware of how out of place they are in the rustic and eccentric village of Härga, and, needless to say, things get worse from there.
What separated Hereditary from the usual connotations of horror — and carries through Midsommar — is that the genre tropes Aster uses (and clearly relishes) are used more as a means than an end unto themselves. Instead, Aster shows himself adept at digging into the emotional turmoil of his characters and their relationships to each other, letting that drive the tension more than any jump scare or act of violence.
Indeed, it seems inevitable that Midsommar will be endlessly compared and contrasted with Hereditary, but it’s warranted given how closely the films are tangled together thematically, cinematographically and emotionally. Aster again explores family strife, grief and mental illness with anxious nuance, positing Pugh’s Dani as a similarly stricken (and similarly exceptionally performed) protagonist to Toni Collette’s Annie. The characters’ ages and relationship dynamics differ, but they each begin the film haunted, and their struggles only add to the tension and disorientation Aster uses to build his smoldering horrors.
While Midsommar’s bright, idyllic scenery, with its haze of greens and yellows and blues, is a stark contrast to the darkened corners and night-bound terrors typical of the genre, the film relishes the tropes and images of pagan folk-horror, with its place-out-of-time setting, eerily charming vocal soundtrack and increasingly suspicious community giving the viewer a sense of Dani’s growing uncertainty and dread. It should come as no surprise that Aster’s fellow horror auteur, Jordan Peele, in a Fangoria interview between the two filmmakers called Midsommar, “the most idyllic horror film of all time.”
“This usurps The Wicker Man as the most iconic pagan movie to be referenced,” Peele added.
There are plenty of iconic images in the film, from the blood-streaked runes shown in the film’s trailer to the flowing white garb and floral arrangements of the villagers in Härga. Violence in Aster’s films is depicted unflinchingly, with harrowing gore and brutal stoicism. Though he’s already crafted some of contemporary horror’s most lasting frames of gore, he’s anything but a splatter-hound. Instead, he uses the unsettling imagery as just another component — along with disorienting camera motion, subtle surreality and soundtrack dynamics — to build a world of creeping dread.
And, as with Hereditary, much of Midsommar’s terror lasts long after the credits roll. Aster’s psychological explorations with his characters are more probing than expository; his plotting more ambiguous than allegorical. Even with its satisfying climax, Midsommar raises more issues than it concretely resolves, making the film a haunting and immersive entry into the horror canon.
No, Aster doesn’t offer any sort of grindhouse sleaze or jump-scare delight in his brutal, meditative film. Like the unsetting sun that illuminates Härga for days on end, Midsommar lingers.