Horror is both revered and derided in equal measure for being a “gateway drug” to filmmakers. It’s got a punk rock DIY sensibility, combined with immediate, visceral thrills and a certain level of forgiveness for breaking the traditional rules of craft and characterization. For that reason, legions of Hollywood outsiders have used the genre to launch their careers, for better or worse.
Whether he’s your cup of tea or not, there’s no denying Ari Aster is operating on another level. I’m hard pressed to think of another horror debut from a new filmmaker that made as big a splash as Hereditary did a couple years ago. Texas Chainsaw Massacre comes to mind. But Hereditary distances itself from even that level of classic by earning the oh-so-rare approval of mainstream film critics, while also scaring the shit out of the hardcore horror guys. That’s an unheard of feat.
The secret ingredient (well, the biggest secret ingredient) is a willingness not to shy away from the grief and trauma that a true horror scenario would create. Every slasher movie features a main character that witnesses the brutal murder of multiple friends and loved ones, but there’s never time for grief. They’re too busy running for their lives. By not letting the audience off the hook of observing the full spectrum of grief first hand, Hereditary brought us emotionally close – TOO close – to the characters and tapped into a new well of fear.
With Midsommar, Aster brings almost all of his signature tools to a new setting. Dark interiors and candlelight are traded for bucolic pastures and blinding sunlight virtually around the clock. In a lengthy pre-credits scene, we establish the relationship between main character Dani (Florence Pugh) and her checked-out boyfriend Christian, a brilliant study in passive aggression. Dani’s worst nightmare comes vividly true in this scene, calling to mind Hereditary’s depictions of trauma, and injecting the doomed relationship with a sort of unholy life.
Later, Dani becomes a fifth wheel in Christian and his three college buddies’ trip to an isolated Swedish commune’s Midsummer festival. Somehow, this unspeakably beautiful landscape and its white-clad, blonde community of Swedes are injected with a dreadful current of danger even through gestures of courtesy. I mean, this IS an Ari Aster joint.
The way the central relationship on life support is depicted throughout the film is achingly realistic and perfectly acted. Consider the moment, shortly after arrival in the commune, when the group is offered a baggie of magic mushrooms, and Dani, not really emotionally prepared for such an adventure, declines, and sets off a chain reaction where Christian feels obligated to abstain for her sake, and his less-than-sympathetic friends react with barely-suppressed annoyance that their parade is already getting rained on. In text it doesn’t seem like an important moment but it speaks volumes about the personalities and dynamics between each one of these people. It reveals emotional truths that turns “movie characters” into living, breathing people.
The commune itself – its sparse collection of buildings, its symbols and artifacts, and its holy places – are breathtaking. Since we know pure horror is imminent, everything takes on a sinister affect. Runes and symbols carved on walls, stories told in painted murals, a cross-shaped May Pole, a grizzly bear in a wooden cage… Clues and foreshadowing are dense throughout the first act – all of it ominous. Psychedelic drugs feature prominently in many of the rituals of Midsommar, and this lends an additional otherwordly vibe to the film as well as a sense of unpredictability.
Another signature Ari Aster trick – frank depictions of horrific bodily harm that come out of nowhere and do not quickly cut away. Because our point of view characters are strangers to this community and its rituals, we feel nervous and in the dark when things get quiet and everyone starts acting strange, which happens often. I spent most of the movie’s runtime thinking “I don’t know what this is but it can’t be good.” A fairly early instance of this shocking violence is still lingering in my brain, refusing to go away. When a few of the main characters’ personality flaws begin to chafe with the customs of the community they’re sort of invading, things quickly go south in a big way.
Tony Collette was awe-inspiring in Hereditary, and with Midsommar, Ari Aster gets another exceptional lead acting performance from Florence Pugh. While she doesn’t quite hit the heights that Collette did, that’s not really a fair comparison as the roles are totally different. There’s just something about Pugh that is perfect for displaying the kind of vulnerability required. Will Poulter, in a supporting role, plays the token douchebag of the group, obliviously vaping during a solemn opening ceremony and basically begging to be killed. And Jack Raynor as the terrible boyfriend is almost too believable in the part. The way he sleepwalks through his obligations to Dani, and the lies he tells both her and his friends to try to avoid confrontation… it’s exquisitely cringey.
So in summary, is Midsommar as good as Hereditary? I can’t say that it is. From a meat-and-potatoes perspective, it’s not as scary, nor as surprising. But I think some of that has to do with expectation, and some of it to do with this being a different style of horror. But while the details may differ, the feelings this movie stirs up and the emotions that stay with you are remarkably similar to Hereditary. Possibly the most incredible thing about Ari Aster’s fledgling career is that a mere two movies in, his style is already fully formed. He has stated recently that he intends to take a break from horror at this point, but I sincerely hope he comes back to it soon, because for my money he’s already a master at it.