With nearly every line or act in his shocking 2018 debut Hereditary, writer-director Ari Aster examined the ubiquity of grief. The walls containing a strained family trembled with sorrow and unforgiveness, until they were eventually torn down by the supernatural threats they let stir beneath them. Now, the young filmmaker expands his conversation of the grim subject in Midsommar, exploring the impositions grief lays not only upon the mourning, but those left standing nearby as well.
That’s not to say the focus rests upon the onlookers, however. Aster’s position still stands firmly with the bequeathed as her tortured state unravels her inner workings, leaving her exposed to the menaces that’ll soon be. And like Hereditary, the catalyst for this knee-buckling anguish takes no time at all to rear its ugly head.
Before any of that takes place, or is at least confirmed, Dani (the beguiling Florence Pugh) already feels her constant need for emotional support’s too much for her boyfriend Christian (an inconsiderate goof played by Jack Reynor) to handle. Aster piercingly depicts both sides of this far-too-common conflict, as Christian feels trapped between the toxic advice of his friends and the gravity of the situation, and Dani mistakenly feels embarrassed by her needs. But the strange, morbid messages your sister sends you are just harmless pleads for attention, right? Well yeah, that may be. Until they’re not anymore.
What follows the film’s grey opening feels even more surreal, as Dani and Christian head to Sweden to observe the religious traditions of his colleague’s (Vilhelm Blomgren) rural commune. Christian invites her out of pity, though the rest of his grad school pals – Josh (William Jackson Harper), who’s there to spell out his thesis, and Mark (Will Poulter), who’s there for the European babes – think they should break up. The ensuing awkwardness is perfectly communicated by the cast and the script.
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Soon enough, however, the guys’ attention heads towards their surprising surroundings and the, hopefully, unique midsummer rituals. We see what’s worth researching about them, and Aster swiftly glides through a usually hazardous two-and-a-half-hour runtime by pitting our speculations and fears against a backdrop of uncertain, but certainly dangerous set of practices. The Americans must also decide whether or not they’re exhibiting a stereotypical impatience or cultural ignorance once things start to take a turn for the stranger, and while they’re debating that, we can feel the key being turned and tossed away.
Above them, the midnight sun plays a vindictive role, casting seemingly eternal light for the dark events to take place. We bask in the beauty provided by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (back after Hereditary), and all the while, we must realize Midsommar understands that scary things can happen in the daytime too. The landscape, painted by pastel plant decorations and spaced-out buildings of incomparable architecture, feels designed to act as an arena of frightful anticipation.
The sheer size of what’s going on here is enough to take you aback, as the magnitude of Aster’s effort can be felt in every scene. This is the kind of sci-fi/horror storytelling that you want to bring home to your mother, where the world-crafting’s sincerity is so well executed that even when it occasionally steers off into silliness, it still demands our attention. Pugh, between her animalistic meltdowns and compassionately relatable insecurities, delivers the perfect companion performance to follow Toni Collette’s. And though Midsommar may not be the totally terrifying follow-up to Hereditary I was expecting, there wasn’t one second where I didn’t believe in horror’s next great auteur.
Ari Aster continues on as filmmaking’s ringleader of grief in Midsommar, an unsettling, often shocking portrayal of cultic life that’s rich with both ambition and beauty.