Much like the success of Jordan Peel’s directorial debut Get Out allowed the New York filmmaker to follow up his 2017 film with this year’s more experimental Us, Ari Aster’s 2018 debut Hereditary made such an impact on audiences starved of original horror properties – $79 million made on a $10 million investment – that his new film, Midsommar, almost feels like he’s testing the limits of what he can now get away with.
Midsommar is the story of a grieving woman (Dani, played by Florence Pugh), in a shitty, broken relationship (with Christian, portrayed by the doe eyed Jack Reynor), who travels to Sweden to visit a pagan cult who are assembling for festivities held only every 90 years. Hey, we’ve all been there. And yet that really is, in terms of plot at least, all there is to it. Like Aster’s first film, there’s a little bit of mediation on grief early on. There’s an unnecessary subplot about PhD thesis rivalry come the film’s middle. But within 30 minutes, you know exactly where we’re going and pretty much exactly how we’re getting there. That’s not necessarily a criticism.
Much has been made of Aster’s Sweden-set, Hungary-filmed folk horror being the spiritual successor to 1973 classic The Wicker Man (and yet a central plot point is borrowed from 2006’s wretched Nick Cage helmed reboot). But in truth, while riffing on similar themes of nature-worshiping-crazies, Midsommar features little of the suspense that film contained. There’s no twists. No turns. It kind of resembles driving down the motorway and seeing a sign that says ‘Terror: 500 miles’. Then putting the pedal down and never turning off once. It’s more inspired by relationship dramas like Modern Romance and Scenes From A Marriage than it is any set horror text. Once again, none of this is necessarily a criticism.
More disturbing than terrifying, what Midsommer is, at the film’s diseased heart, is a comment on the misery of broken relationships. The endless jockeying for disparate needs to be met. The futility of two halves striving to become realigned. It’s been said that originally the film was supposed to be a more-conventional-than-not slasher movie, only set in a Swedish cult. Then Aster’s own relationship ended. The Swedish cult remained. The brutality of the slasher movie stayed. But what came in, and indeed what the film is framed around, is an attempt to capture the slow-mo trauma of a relationship that has stopped working, only nobody in it has really noticed yet. It’s a film about people dying horribly, yes. Often by their own choosing. And yet it’s the relationship at the fulcrum of the movie that’s most desperate to be offed.
At 147 minutes, Midsommer asks for investment. And it tests it too, with many scenes feeling like they’ve been included in a deliberate attempt to test the viewer’s patience. The result is an experience that almost feels meditative. The film is mostly set during the long daylight hours of northern Sweden in summer, often through the lens of hallucinogenic drugs, with the vibrancy and colour of nature (almost an inverse of Hereditary’s aesthetic) bursting from the screen. It’s visuals like these which align with the searing sounds composed by Bobby Krlic, aka the Haxan Cloak, to create something almost transcendent. By the time the film concludes, you will be tired, you will be emotional, you will be confused. It’s been said that Aster actually wrote Midsommer’s script while listening to Krlic’s 2013 record Excavation, an electrionic, instrumental opus inspired by the afterlife. Which explains a lot.
Midsommer is funnier than you’d expect it to be. Everyone cast within it – most notably Pugh, who feels like a superstar elect – turns in either excellent or extraordinary performances. And while it won’t be for everyone – those looking for the jump scares that populate multiplex horror will be disappointed, anyone lacking a strong constitution are advised to stay well away – Aster’s second movie really is extraordinary filmmaking. A movie that has found something unsaid within the genre to be said. A horror movie that is genuinely horrifying. Does Aster get away with it? And then some.