Director: Ari Aster
Cast: Jack Reynor, Florence Pugh, Will Poulter, William Jackson Harper, Ellora Torchia, Archie Madekwe, Vilhem Blomgren
Runtime: 2 hrs 27 mins
Rating: R21 (Sexual Scenes and Violence)
Released By: mm2 Entertainment
Opening Day: 19 September 2019
Synopsis: Dani and Christian are a young American couple with a relationship on the brink of falling apart. But after a family tragedy befalls Dani, grief keeps them together, and Dani invites herself to join Christian and his friends on a trip to a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer festival in a remote Swedish village. What begins as a carefree summer adventure in a land of eternal sunlight takes a sinister turn when the insular villagers invite their guests to partake in festivities that render the pastoral paradise increasingly unnerving and viscerally disturbing. From the visionary mind of Ari Aster comes a dread-soaked cinematic fairy tale where a world of darkness unfolds in broad daylight.
Whether you like it or not, there’s no denying that there is ambition in writer-director Ari Aster’s sophomore effort. Oh yes, like his debut ‘Hereditary’, Aster’s latest will definitely divide audiences into those who embrace his idea of “a break-up movie dressed in the clothes of a folk horror film” and those who loathe it for being an excuse to indulge in such horrific acts as suicide, mercy killings and religious hysteria. Yet as much as we found ourselves tending towards the former category, we weren’t so keen to lavish it with superlative praise – not only are there areas where it clearly owes its dues to such genre classics as ‘The Wicker Man’, we’ve also seen similar ground covered more recently in other pagan horrors like Netflix’s ‘Apostle’.
That the central relationship in ‘Midsommar’ is that of a teenage couple going through challenging times is no coincidence, given that Aster came up with the script while he was going through his own parting of the ways. Between them, Dani (Florence Pugh) is probably the more interesting one, having had her life turned upside down at the start of the movie by a tragic family event involving murder and suicide. Instead of being supportive, her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) wishes only to break up with her, but cannot quite summon the courage to say the words. Likewise, Christian finds it hard to say no when Dani asks about the trip he and his fellow anthropology students intend to make to a rural community in Sweden, and eventually offers to take her along.
At close to two and a half hours, ‘Midsommar’ takes its time establishing the horrors of the nine-day solstice festival that happens only once every 90 years in the remote settlement of Halsingland. Besides Dani and Christian, the rest of the group comprising Mark (Will Poulter), Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) are welcomed warmly by the robe-wearing villagers who sing, dance, play the flute and wear flower crowns. It is tempting to think that the reception is due to Pelle’s familiarity with the commune, given that he had grown up with them, but suffice to say that there are much more sinister reasons why these outsiders are being so readily received, and for that matter, why Pelle had brought them here in the first place.
The first sign that something is not quite right is when two elderly villagers heave themselves off a cliff while the rest cheer them on, notwithstanding the conception of life which the community holds – i.e. 18 years of childhood, 18 years of pilgrimage, 18 years of work, and then 18 years as a village elder. To be sure, these teenagers are also guilty of missteps, such as Mark peeing on an ancestral tree, or Josh deciding to sneak in one night into the temple to take photographs of their ancient religious book, or Christian being unable to keep his eyes off one of the village girls; but each one of them is either individually or collectively given a variety of hallucinogens during their stay, in order to make their minds pliable to influence or their bodies yielding to control.
Like we said, the less you know about the movie, the better you’ll appreciate its twisted ways, including caged bears, pubic hairs in meat pies and even fertility rites. It is pretty extreme for the uninitiated, so consider that fair warning if you intend to sit through the slow-burn. But to Aster’s credit, it isn’t just gory and grisly for its own sake; rather, even as these scenes are clearly choreographed for cinematic horror, they are also calibrated to follow Dani’s evolution through the course of the movie. Though she is at first utterly disgusted by their beliefs and rituals, Dani grows to accept the community as family, in part too because Christian only goes more distant just when she needs him to help get through the toxic mix of trauma and disillusion.
In Pugh, Aster has found a sharp actress who portrays Dani’s emotional and psychological frailties with nuance and measure, especially as her character eventually finds reawakening and enlightenment within than outside the community. It is Dani’s journey which Aster roots his movie in, and Pugh lives up to the challenge of ensuring that the movie is a character-driven horror. What is more amazing than the teenage cast which Aster surrounds Pugh with is the 60 to 70 odd actors who make up the Hårga; not only do they look the part, they also manage in their own distinct ways to summon the right level of creepiness on cue to match the scene.
Still, there is no escaping the fact that ‘Midsommar’ will divide its audiences, so get ready at the very least to go into it with an open mind. Sure, it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that there could still be a community steeped in such archaic practices, but Aster grounds it in the possibility of how someone broken could find solace in such a community. It is also worthwhile to note that everything here takes place in broad daylight, without the reliance on darkness, shadows or jump-scares to elicit chills, and even if it won’t make you long for night to fall, it will creep you out nonetheless. As far as pagan horror is concerned, ‘Midsommar’ is as solid an entry as any, provided you have the guts for it.
(As accomplished a pagan horror as any, 'Midsommar' is also ultimately a slow-burn psychological drama that plays out in broad daylight)
Review by Gabriel Chong