How do you follow up a film like Hereditary?
Last year’s surprise horror/drama hit from first-time director Ari Aster had audiences not just crying out for award recognition for its star, but was the spark to an almost endless debate about where drama ends and horror begins. It was an emotionally taxing slow burn that hooked you in early on and left you shaken and drained by the end. Whatever Aster decided to do next, expectations were always going to be high, so the director has taken on the “go big or go home” mantra and brought us Midsommar.
Much like Hereditary, grief and how people deal with it is where Midsommar firmly plants its ideas. College student Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh – Fighting With My Family) has been reeling from the tragic loss of her parents over winter. Cursed with intense panic attacks, she is invited by her all-but-estranged boyfriend Christian to spend the summer at the Hårga, a pagan-esque commune in the Swedish countryside. Christian and his college buddies Josh (William Jackson Harper – The Good Place) and Mark (Will Poulter – Detroit) are heading out to celebrate and take part in the Midsommar celebrations at their friend Pelle’s (Vilhelm Blomgren) secluded village. It is a whole different way of living in the picturesque Swedish countryside and it takes the visiting group a little while to acclimate to their surroundings.
The trip takes a dark turn when what at first glance appears to be simple culture differences turn into horrifying rituals. It soon transpires that the friends haven’t been invited to share in the celebrations, they are here to witness and participate in the gruesome festivities. With her sleep haunted and her days spent in the waking nightmare of the Hårga, Dani has to find a way to reconcile her anxieties and her fears while trying desperately to keep her relationship in one piece. Unbeknownst to her, the Midsommar festival may have all the answers she needs.
Midsommar is a rarity in horror films in that it almost exclusively set in the daylight. In almost any other genre, the setting of a film in a place where the sun never goes down would be little more than a gimmick, a curiosity to be checked out. But Aster’s second film takes the setting and says to you “I bet I can still bring you to the edge of your nerves”. He practically dares you to look at his film with contempt, rolling your eyes at the fact there’s no dark scary woods or dank lightless basement in a single page of the script. But like Hereditary before it, it’s not necessarily what is put in front of these characters that affects them the most, it’s what they do to themselves.
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As the group of friends dig deeper into the celebrations and see more of the festivities, the sense of impending dread is a wonder to behold. It’s not the feeling of an incoming jump-scare, so common in your average horror film; it’s the sense that something truly horrible is about to happen and not only is there nothing that can be done to stop it, but it’s just par-for-the-course in the Hårga.
Front and centre in all this quiet chaos is Dani. Her grief controls her at every turn, and the Midsommar celebrations just make it worse. The muted nightmares Dani and her friends are subjected to during the day are one thing, but the need to sleep with constant daylight could be pushing them all to paranoid madness – think Al Pacino’s descent into psychosis in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia – so much so that, even knowing what awaits her when she sleeps, Dani has to hit the sleeping pills to try and survive what should have been a relaxing holiday. Florence Pugh convinces at every turn that she is suffering. Each time she’s subjected to something horrible, every time the curtain is pulled back a little more, Pugh lets us know just how bad this place is. But there’s something inside her that’s able to channel the festival for her own good.
We get to watch Dani use this place to deal with some of the most emotionally traumatic awfulness that a person can go through. There is something about being with these people, that is slowly tipping the scales in her favour and the anxieties and the panic attacks that torture Dani seem to be falling by the wayside here. Watching Pugh’s transformation in the Hårga, from her opening five minutes – which still gives some of the most haunting imagery of the film – to her final moment would be joyous to watch if it wasn’t pinned to such a horrifying backdrop. Maybe more so than last year’s calls for Collette’s recognition, Florence Pugh needs to be put on as high a pedestal as possible for her portrayal of the grief stricken teenager.
As for her friends, the people that unwittingly brought her into this? Christian, the boyfriend who wants away from her? An anthropology student who’s about to butt heads with fellow travel mate Josh over a thesis subject. Along with world class screw-around Mark, this is one group of guys who do a splendid job in having you hate them. Not since the teenagers in the Nightmare on Elm Street remake has there been such a douche canoe worthy of horrible things happening to them. It’s here that Ari Aster’s vision really comes to life. The tortures the group are put through are terrifying, gruesome and well deserved. So much so, in fact, that in this somewhat muted horror-drama, it is this group that the most gloriously horrible things happen to and there’s something truly satisfying about the way their trip comes to an end.
Aster has a wonderful eye. Anyone who has watched Hereditary, love it or loathe it, can see that. He lets the light drown out the darkness of the opening tragedy and lulls you into a sense of security with it. Once the friends are in Sweden, every scene, every frame is a gorgeous landscape painting. The feeling that the bright sun can burn out any evil in the tiny commune is cultivated to the point that it becomes almost literal, exasperated by the constant trip the group are on that makes the whole valley they are camping out in bend and bow subtly, but uncontrollably. There will be times you look and think to yourself “did I just see that”? Yes, yes you did. Well, maybe. A first glance isn’t going to be enough to see it all, keen eyed audiences will be noticing the director’s touches on multiple viewings, and this excellent film deserves the extra watches just to take in its beauty.
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Midsommar is a horrific and beautiful dive into the effects of grief on a person. Every frame is meticulously put together to let the audience take from it what they want, or what they need. Much like how Dani uses the rituals to help herself, viewers can take from these moments the answers they want. However you decide to interpret Aster’s message, it is sure to leave a cold sinking feeling in your stomach. It juxtaposes truly horrendous images with a beautiful scenic landscape in a way that gets a shiver going down your spine. This sophomore effort from this future master of the horror genre simply proves that Ari Aster is a name not just to watch, but to follow intently.