Dir: Ari Aster. Starring: Florence Pugh, Will Poulter, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Liv Mjones, and Julia Ragnarsson. 18, 147 mins
For director Ari Aster, horror starts at home. It’s those closest to us that can inflict the deepest wounds. In his debut film Hereditary, released last year to both great acclaim and some healthy dissent, he dealt with the terrors of the family unit, where guilt and resentment have as powerful a sway as love. Yet he did so with the help of all things macabre – witches, ghosts, and demons – and crafted tableaux straight out of a waking nightmare. His follow-up, Midsommar, serves up much of the same: it’s a break-up movie wrapped up in pagan horror. It’s also bound to be one of this year’s most memorable films, proving that Aster is far from a one-hit wonder.
At its centre is Dani (Florence Pugh), a young American woman who’s suffered unspeakable loss but isn’t getting the support she needs from her boyfriend of four years, Christian (Jack Reynor). He’s an emotional brick wall, which isn’t helped by the fact his friends have always encouraged him in his neglectfulness, at one point declaring her frequent phone calls to be “literally abuse”. They do, at the very least, offer her a pity invite to their boys’ trip to northern Sweden, where they plan to visit the hometown of Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) and take part in its ancestral midsommar celebration – an event that takes place there every 90 years. Each of the men are drawn there for different reasons: Christian and Josh (William Jackson Harper) are both anthropologists with an interest in the local traditions, while Mark (Will Poulter) is only there for the ladies. Pelle, at first, seems just a little homesick, although he’s suspiciously eager to have Dani tag along.
The people of his isolated community, known as the Harga, seem friendly enough, though a little unusual. Everything they do seems bound by ritual, whether it’s the way they eat, do their laundry, or flirt with their new visitors. Unsurprisingly, this veneer of geniality eventually starts to crack, as their customs become increasingly barbaric with each passing day. The violence is brutal, the deaths are gruesome, and their cruelty is unsurpassed. The orgies are a bit awkward, too. Yet, Midsommar, at the end of the day, isn’t here just to crank scares out of creepy European traditions. It’s about what happens when you drop a fragile relationship into the most extreme of circumstances, in a place where everything is driven by a cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
Dani and Christian’s reactions to this unfolding horror tell us everything we need to know about them. In a startling performance from Pugh, we see her mouth start to sink into a downturned grimace, as she collapses on to the floor under the weight of her own anguish, wailing like an animal. Reynor, who’s also excellent, reacts to everything like a deer in headlights. His way to cope is to straight out refuse to process anything that’s happening to him. It’s the fundamental differences between two people, supposedly committed to each other, that ends up being the scariest thing of all.
As he did in Hereditary, Aster puts much of his emphasis on singular, shocking images. He lets the camera creep closer and closer until we become consumed by what see before us. Sometimes we’re watching the action unfold in the reflection of a mirror, like we’re watching our own selves. But we’re also constantly tripped up by a false sense of tranquillity. The film, which stretches to nearly two and a half hours, is in absolutely no rush to reach its horrifying conclusion. That might leave some impatiently looking at their watches, wondering when the heads will finally start to roll, but it also allows you to feel at home with the characters’ own uncertainty about the situation. The Harga treat every act – whether horrifying or not – as just an ordinary part of their lives, which makes Christian and his friends initially unwilling to turn tail and run, since they’re so concerned about seeming disrespectful to their welcoming hosts. The sun barely sets during the summer in northern Sweden, meaning the vast majority of scenes take place in bright daylight. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski surrounds us in the superficial comforts of blue skies, fertile greenery, and the crisp white tunics of the Harga. Henrik Svensson’s production design equally avoids the overtly sinister, with the commune’s wooden buildings lovingly hand-painted with simple patterns and scenes of old, folksy practices. It’s only when you look closer that you realise these images are actually a warning of what lies ahead.
None of this sounds like the usual way to approach horror, but Aster’s MO is to throw convention out of the window. Again, much like his previous film (specifically, Toni Collette’s explosive breakdown at the dinner table), there are traces of morbid humour, but these are tense, uncomfortable laughs – the kind that unintentionally burst out when we’re faced with the incomprehensible. When I found myself sniggering at bloody mayhem, I really did feel like a part of this slow descent into madness. Midsommar might seem like an easy sell (people in flower crowns being creepy! Wicker Man vibes!), but it’s far from an easy movie. It’s strange and distressing at times, even a little punishing to audiences, but it’s filled with ideas, images, and feelings that will stay with you long after the credits roll. And it’s worth every second.
Midsommar is released in UK cinemas on 5 July
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