Ari Aster’s debut feature-length film “Hereditary” shocked audiences with a story about family’s unraveling after the death of a loved one. His follow-up “Midsommar” is again about death and its effects on people, but instead of damaging a relationship, it appears to extends it.
The story centers around Dani (Florence Pugh, a grad student whose broken relationship with Christian (Jack Reynour), looks to be heading towards its conclusion. When a horrific family tragedy blindsides Dani it leaves Christian feeling too guilty to bring things to what had seemed like an inevitable end. Instead of separating, they ultimately end up joining some friends on a trip to Sweden to take part in the midsummer celebration at a commune.
The commune is a beautifully calm setting with lush fields of green, participants wearing long flowing natural hair, embroidered white ceremonial garbs, historical tapestries full of colorful imagery, and blue skies. Everything about the place exudes peace and harmony, but as is often found the things that scare us, there is more going on just below the surface. For some reason, this level of amicability carries with it an element of creepiness to it. This place is no exception. When someone/something maintains an elevated level of calm, it is just hard to trust. Perhaps it is because most people’s lives’ are a series of ups and downs – without one or the other, it is unnatural.
Soon, the group of friends is exposed to some of the down of the communes as they partake in one of the festival’s events. It starts in a positive fashion, but then the ritual ends with a pair of elderly group members’ lives coming to a gruesome, violent ending. While most of the outsiders have to turn or walk away, the community members, both young and old, continue to watch with smiles on their faces. There is no mistaking that this was no accident and that Dani and her friends are in for a much darker experience than originally promised.
The film is a slow burn and even as the ominous aspects of this society are revealed, the pace never rises above to slow-speed chase. If you are looking for flat our scares, this is not the film for you. It succeeds at delivering a level of eeriness throughout, reinforced by discussions of prophecies, hallucinogenic teas, “religious” rituals, and other suspicious reveals.
As the film passed halfway point I felt as if had most of it figured out. And, honestly, I was not wrong. This is not because of my impressive intellect or my sleuthing abilities, but rather due to Aster’s decision to cloak much of the cult’s rituals in ambiguity. There is mention of the symbolism behind the camp and the actions of its members, but it is all rather vague. Sometimes this approach works, leading to a terrifying sense of impending doom that ramps up into pure terror. In those cases, it often better to just enjoy the moments of fear and not think too much about what created the fear. With the pacing of “Midsommar”, it is kind of difficult to not want to know more.
Is this a case of style over substance, is it less is more or is it both? Any way you look at it, the film succeeds at being a long, interesting, ominous mood piece. Pugh’s Dani and her relationship provide enough complexity and humanity to care about. The “cult” as a whole is an enigma that continuously presents more and more mysteries and intrigue. For horror fans, there are some visual shocks and components to hold your interest, especially set against the tranquil, secretive environment.
Still, as a whole, this is not a film worthy of a return visit, simply because there is as much to chew on as needed to justify doing so. If you are thinking about taking a trip to the commune, go in with reasonable expectations, immerse yourself in the ambiance, and don’t expect excursions. By doing so, perhaps you’ll enjoy your stay more so than I did.