“Hereditary” director Ari Aster has been very open about the fact that his latest film venture, “Midsommar,” is at its core a breakup movie. This revelation probably comes as a surprise to anyone who’s heard of the movie, but hasn’t actually seen it. Its marketing campaign has focused on depicting the pagan cult ceremony the central characters find themselves participating in, which ultimately becomes a horrifying spectacle of shocking violence and breathtaking, sun-soaked imagery. And while at its surface “Midsommar” is exactly that, over its 147-minute runtime the film reveals itself to be so much more.
“Midsommar” follows Dani (Florence Pugh, “Lady Macbeth”), a young college student struggling to cope with the murder-suicide that claimed the lives of her sister and her parents. Alongside this, Dani is also working to salvage her relationship with her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor, “What Richard Did”), a relationship neither of them are fully sure they want to save. The two find themselves travelling with Christian’s academically minded friends to Sweden to witness a midsummer tradition taking place among the fictional Hårga people, whose celebration takes place only once every 90 years. Their innocent, well meaning anthropological investigation results in bloodshed, sex and a climax no one could have expected.
It’s nearly impossible to think about “Midsommar” without considering its predecessor, “Hereditary,” a film so admired and beloved it’s been given the distinction by many of being a “modern horror masterpiece.” To be sure, the two films share several uncanny similarities. Both examine the depths of grief, both find horror in paganistic religious rituals, both are carried by Oscar-worthy lead performances from Florence Pugh and Toni Collette, respectively.
That’s just about where the similarities end. “Midsommar” distinguishes itself from “Hereditary” by embracing an entirely different approach to instilling fear in its viewers. For one, the two could not be more aesthetically opposed. In “Hereditary,” a substantial portion of the central action takes place in the dark, allowing evil to lurk and sneak up on characters in unexpected places, whereas the vast majority of “Midsommar” transpires under an oppressive and nearly blinding sun. There’s nowhere for anyone to hide, which is both comforting and terrifying. The film’s literal brightness forces us to take in its horrors with a shocking clarity.
“Midsommar” further separates itself by embracing a technique that’s wholly absent from the latter film: comedy. With Will Poulter (“Black Mirror: Bandersnatch”) serving as a fairly consistent source of comedic relief, “Midsommar” deliberately disorients our expectations of what watching a horror film should feel like. The thrillingly messy concoction of horror, relationship drama and comedy that constitutes “Midsommar” creates an overall tonal inconsistency that actually serves to its advantage, generating an uncomfortable and unpredictable atmosphere. No other movie feels quite like it.
Perhaps the thing that most distinguishes “Midsommar” from its predecessor is that the star of the film is not its protagonist. Its star is the world it creates and culture that exists within it. In an interview with Slate, Aster remarks, “Life is suffering. I agree with that, and I think it’s therapeutic to give expression to that … there’s also this high-minded part of me that wants to do it in the most elegant way possible. That’s where this (Midsommar) comes from.” “Elegant” is precisely the adjective that comes to mind when I think of how Aster presents the Hårga people. Their ceremony becomes a hypnotic blur of earth and sky and flower crowns and immaculate whiteness that’s as nauseating as it is beautiful. It lures you in and doesn’t let go.
“Midsommar” is not “Hereditary.” It’s not trying to be. “Midsommar” is a spectacularly shot and surprisingly hilarious experiment in immersive filmmaking that without question deserves a spot alongside “Hereditary” in the arthouse horror canon.