Midsommar is a very good horror film. Ari Aster continues to value chills over thrills as he eschews jump scares in favour of unsettling images and frightening concepts. It’s a much more subtle approach to horror, punctuated with the odd visceral scene of brilliantly realised and bluntly filmed gore. It’s certainly a shocking film but one with a surprising amount of nuance.
Recovering from the horrific death of her family, Dani (Florence Pugh) agrees to join her boyfriend and his friends on a trip to rural Sweden, where they hope to research the mid-summer traditions of a small isolated community. However as they become more and more alarmed at the practices of the locals, they soon find themselves struggling to leave with their skin intact, quite literally.
The film principally deals with grief and depression. As with Hereditary Aster confronts these themes very directly in the film’s first half allowing them to become subtext in the second. There are no mentions of Dani’s family in the film’s climax but the weight of their demise is felt throughout. Whereas Hereditary committed too much of it’s third act to exposition, melodrama and silliness, Midsommar maintains the sense of mystery fairly well and keeps up the sense of tension. Late in the film we see different reactions to Dani’s panic attacks that greatly explain her actions come the end of the film.
It is however a fairly conventional film thematically. The usual horror truisms are present: disabled and older people are sinister, people experiencing depression are inevitably homicidal and rural communities are inbred, murderous weirdos weighting to prey on anyone foolhardy enough to leave the safety of the big city. Only the last of these is demonstrably true in real life, and the tropes continue to be fairly damaging and stigmatising. Though the film’s final image is powerful it still teaches that people experiencing grief are abnormal.
Where the film excels is in its presentation. This is an exceptionally well-made film in which production design and cinematography create a colourful palette that is quite at odds with the traditional horror aesthetic. The monsters and ghouls do not lurk in the darkness as they did in Hereditary. They are all too plain to see. Aster has already established an iconic aesthetic. He continues to present very symmetrical frames that resemble doll houses. Lateral camera movements, and jarring use of diegetic sound serve to throw us off balance. As the characters begin to lose their grip and slide into hysteria, we are pulled down with them.
The film is also very well performed. Florence Pugh is, as always, a standout. She’s heartbreaking as the grieving young woman whose family have been cruelly taken away. Her moments of anguish are as expressive as Toni Collette’s efforts in Hereditary but ring much truer. Jack Reynor and William Jackson Harper have their best chemistry with each other, and are very convincing as the hapless, oblivious academics. The cultists all avail themselves well, achieving a menacing friendliness familiar to any unfortunate enough to have visited the countryside. Will Poulter is always fabulous, but his character is a little unnatural here. He’s the joker of the group, which tends to manifest as very cliched exclamations, often from off screen.
Ultimately Midsommar is not treading new ground. It’s rural horror and greatly recalls The Wicker Man (both versions in fact). For a more inventive alternative take to similar material, I’d recommend Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s The Endless, which turns the rural cult narrative entirely on its head. However, this is a beautifully crafted and extraordinarily engaging folk horror film that’s definitely worth seeing on the big screen. It’s going to stay with you for a while!