“I wrote this while going through a break-up,” Ari Aster said at the special advance screening of Midsommar (2019). “I’m better now.”
The filmmaker’s darkly humorous confession played well to the crowd at Brooklyn’s Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, where press and select members of the public gathered to see Aster’s hotly anticipated follow-up to his wildly praised debut, Hereditary. As the crowd chuckled at Aster’s softly spoken introduction, a mix of excitement and anxiety hung in the air. With his first film, Aster had offered a scorching exploration of family trauma with a unique brand of horror grounded by an impeccable performance from a riveting leading lady. Basically, Hereditary was so outstanding, how could Midsommar possibly compete?
I’m relieved and elated to announce Aster has done it again. Once more he has granted audiences a new vision of horror and heartbreak centered around one absolutely soul-shaking leading lady.
English ingénue Florence Pugh stars as Dani, an American grad school student who is clutching onto her uncaring boyfriend Christian (Jay Reynor) by the tips of her splintering fingernails. With a ruthless emotional efficiency, Aster’s script reveals the state of their relationship through a simple phone call. Distraught over a troubling email, Dani calls Christian for comfort. Aster will only show us Dani’s side of the conversation, never cutting to Christian, who tells us he’s smoking up with buddies. The camera concentrates on Dani’s face. As she struggles to sound calm and cool, her eyes tremble with tears. Desperately, she tries to hide her messiness, her emotions, her truth, just to keep him. Then, while she’s worrying over the phone to an unseen friend if she’s asking too much, Christian is at a bar with his friends, plotting his breakup. Perhaps the group’s upcoming trip to a remote Swedish village of Hårgafor for a rare mid-summer festival could be his escape? But when a devastating personal tragedy hits Dani, Christian unexpectedly invites her along, and so seals both their fates.
Their trip is tumultuous right from the jump, as each traveler has a different motivation for this journey. Dani is seeking to reconnect with Christian; Christian is seeking to escape Dani. Swedish student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) wants to introduce his friends to his family’s grand tradition, which only take place once every 90 years. That’s irresistible to aspiring anthropologist Josh (William Jackson Harper), but a bummer to loudmouth Mark (Will Poulter), who hoped for hot babes and wild nights in Stockholm. Still, he’s pleased when psychotropic shrooms are offered as a welcoming gift. But drugs getting in the mix with personal tensions and strangely violent customs soon has these American students looking for a way out.
Though he’s made a horror movie about a creepy cult, Aster rejects playing into expectations of how his terror should be brewed. Gone are the dark shadows that hid ominous figures in Hereditary. Instead, much of Midsommar‘s scares play out in sunlight, where Aster steadily makes the pleasant turn perturbing. Pastel-colored folk-art of smiling people reveals eerie depictions of witchcraft, sex, and fire. Pretty flowers are menacingly plunked into trip-inducing tonics and festooned upon the most vicious elements of Hårga’s traditions. Even the warm smiles of the locals turn unnerving when they shine upon scenes of unapologetic violence. The cinematography of Pawel Pogorzelski gracefully dollies and pans, following the characters down a slippery slope outside their comfort zone. Visual effects warp flowers and flesh so that they ominously throb. And all this is underlined by a score that blends voices and instruments in ways charming and chilling. British musician The Haxan Cloak replaces the whine of ambulance alarms with the howl of brass horns, and plays with Swedish throat singing to twist it from harmonious to horrific and back again. In this way, the score and visuals play into Midsommar‘s theme of transformation and perspective.
In Hereditary, Aster relentlessly wound the tension tighter and tighter until audiences cried out in panic. Midsommar is far more playful with pacing and tone. Aster offers an early sequence that’s deeply gruesome, then focuses on the emotional devastation of his heroine as she struggles to cope. But — and this is a welcomed and unpredicted surprise — there’s also a lively wit woven through this dark tale. I mean, this film is funny! But it’s not like Aster’s made a horror-comedy or has peppered in jokes to alleviate tension. His is a wry and observational sense of humor that scoffs at the callousness of casual conversation and the arrogance of intruding tourists, calling into question the norms of its American heroes.
Aster’s blend of beauty, violence, horror and humor leads to a climax that is both disturbing yet exhilarating. But all of this might have been for naught if it weren’t for Aster once more choosing an impeccable cast. Blomgren offers a warmth so constant and welcoming it’s easy to see why the rest would follow Pelle into parts unknown. English ingendude Poulter brings a slight snarl, brash tongue, and cavalier swagger as the group’s Ugly American. Playing a judgmental scholar with a slightly obnoxious obsession with his studies, Harper seems to be riffing roughly but effectively from his The Good Place character. And Reynor brings a rough-and-tumble charm to the bad boyfriend role. But it’s Pugh’s performance that is absolutely stellar.
Even in the earliest scenes where she’s alone with a phone, Pugh’s eyes scream of the agony Dani feels inside and the words she won’t dare say. The strain of suppressing her feelings threatens to rip her to pieces. But in Hårga, the horrid is celebrated alongside the wonderful. So even amid the horrors of this festival, Dani finds a marvelous freedom as she exposes her hurt. Pugh leads us through this torrent of emotions with a firm hand, as if she’s confidently pulling us through the film’s pivotal folk dance. Whether choking back her hurt, keening uncontrollable, or cracking a fragile smile, Pugh is absolutely riveting. As Dani, she embodies Aster’s celebration of the brutal yet beautiful and ultimately transformative process of heartbreak. More than that, Pugh claims her crown as a scream queen, masterful, radiant, and empowering.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com