Ari Aster is an unusual director. Many people consider him a horror director, but I disagree. While most horror films are overt in their attacks on an audience, Aster takes a more subtle approach that borders on psychological torture. In this regard, Midsommar is one of the most overbearing and uncomfortable films I’ve seen in recent years, so much that it’s hard to tell whether it’s a masterpiece or if it’s just really, really good. Either way, Aster has made a unique and effective film to assault his audience with.
The film tells of the doomed romance between Dani and her emotionally distant boyfriend Christian. Right before Christian plans to end things with Dani, her family is killed in a shocking murder-suicide. Traumatized by their deaths, Dani is invited to join Christian and his friends as they travel overseas to attend a Midsommar festival in a remote village. At first, everything seems fine, but as time drags on, Dani, Christian and their friends begin to notice something ominous about the people of this village. As they witness increasingly unsettling acts by the villagers and members of their group start to go missing, it becomes increasingly clear that the friends have been invited there for sinister purposes.
The characters in the movie are interesting in that for the most part, they’re not sympathetic. The only character we really relate to is Dani as her suffering is real and relatable. In spite of what she’s going through, Christian and her friends treat her with cold indifference. Because of this, Dani’s isolation feels that much worse. She doesn’t have any allies before she gets to the village, and once she’s there, she’s only among more strangers.
Florence Pugh delivers a heartfelt performance as a character overwhelmed. Dani is a character suffering deep inner turmoil that is only exacerbated by the events of the film. Pugh plays the role like a stick of dynamite with the fuse lit. Like the film itself, it’s wonderfully subtle, and only comes undone at choice moments.
Among the more cliched elements of the film are Christian and his friends, who follow numerous horror archetypes such as the selfish friend and the dumb stoner. They provide a few laughs early on, and Christian and his friend Josh develop a strong rivalry based on their planned thesis projects, but overall these scenes only seem to show how inattentive the group is of Dani. Even during off moments, Dani’s grief is being neglected.
The murder-suicide in the film is superbly done, but also brilliantly placed in the film. Similar to how Hereditary’s signature scene left a permanent scar on the audience, so does the opening of this film. From the very first scene, Aster lets us know he’s a director who can’t be trusted, so even when there are no shadows in the room, we’re still jumping.
One of the main points of intrigue about the film is its setting-and for good reason. The village commune is highly evocative of the original 70s version of The Wicker Man, with perhaps some shades of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The members of the commune have very little character, but they’re not meant to. The mob itself is the character, and since we see little in the way of a recognizable leader, we never see a nucleus that could be destroyed. It makes them seem that much more unstoppable when the strange occurrences finally begin.
From the moment the friends arrive in the village, we can’t help but feel the sense that they’re doomed. Right away, seemingly mundane activities are tainted by small assaults on the characters and the audience. A drug trip brings up bad memories for Dani. Christian is flirtatiously kicked by a young girl from the village. This builds and builds until around the film’s midpoint when the characters witness a ritual and learn this isn’t just a normal commune.
From here, it’s all downhill for the heroes, though not in the way one would expect. Though we’re aware something is wrong, the characters themselves never receive any real confirmation of the danger they’re in. Rather, it seems to be lurking just below the surface. This is in large part due to a clever trick by Aster. Most horror films show us what happens when a character wanders off and is killed. This movie never lets us leave the main cast. Even though we know something is wrong, we rarely get any confirmation of our fears.
This is shown in one of the film’s best sequences. During a scene where the characters make idle conversation, they’re interrupted by a series of faraway screams. We don’t see any actual violence, and when the screams stop, the characters continue to go about their business. Mind you, this is one of the more definite examples of the cast getting culled. Most of the time we see even less, with characters just vanishing or being lead away by one of the villagers never to be seen again. It makes the few times we do see the violence that much more shocking and gruesome.
It’s only when Dani and Christian are the only two left that we start seeing more definite horror elements, but even then Midsommar doesn’t resort to what most of us would expect like say the two heroes being chased by a mob of angry locals. Rather, the film takes a more subtle approach and instead draws attention to just how broken Dani and Christian’s relationship really is. This leads to the film’s finale, where for the first time Dani is given some agency in the plot. What she does with that agency is shocking, but also appropriate given her treatment by other members of the cast.
Make no mistakes. If you want to see a scream out loud horror film, you won’t find it here. What Aster does here isn’t the kind of horror I generally like, but there’s no denying how effective it is. Rather than enticing screams through rousing and imaginative set pieces, Aster instead focuses on the little moments aimed to keep your skin crawling. You may not be terrified by the film, but it will keep you terribly unsettled until it ends.
Rating – 8/10
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