Last year, Ari Aster’s Hereditary delivered one of my all-time favourite public theatre viewing experiences. Peter (Alex Wolff) slowly awakens in his dimly lit room in the middle of the night. Having already endured nearly two hours of slow-building dread and demonic torture, he’s exhausted and emotionally shattered. The wide frame sits patiently across the room and waits. Slowly, one by one, the audience finally begin to notice something in the top left corner of the screen. The collective nervous dread washes over the cinema and when the moment is just perfect, we all lost our collective freaking minds.
Aster’s debut promised us a talented filmmaker who delivered an intense psychodrama that easily slid into the well-worn fleshy skin of the horror genre. Most impressive was his patience with setting up and delivering well-constructed dread-filled scares in his (literal) dollhouse. The scene I mentioned, along with many others, knew where to lurk in the shadows and darkness, and when to expose itself to the traumatised family and audience members.
With Midsommar, Aster emerges from the low-lit soundstage and embraces the great sunny Sweedish outdoors to create a daisy-chained, daylight horror experience for the Instagram/Coachella generation.
The film begins in a similar tone and darkened aesthetic to Hereditary, and is similarly overwrought with emotional agony. We meet the highly anxious Dani (Florence Pugh) and quickly learn that she’s on the brink of a complete mental breakdown. These early tragic scenes intentionally position the audience with such close intimacy, that we can’t help but feel hopelessly useless to her. We’re forced to sit silently by and do nothing, as she desperately attempts to find emotional support, as her suffering is callously downplayed by her disconnected boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor).
The raw opening 20 minutes act as both a stylistic and thematic conduit to Aster’s previous feature. It firmly establishes the emotional core that is entirely necessary for the remainder of the 2 hours to work as they do. Because the second Dani invites herself to join Christian and his three university pals on a planned boy’s trip to Europe, the film shifts radically into a surreal folk horror film that can’t quite hide its affections for Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man.
Arriving in Hälsingland, the Americans are immediately welcomed, drugged and assimilated into the sun-drenched, white cladded and perpetually smiley commune known as the Hårga. And then things get real trippy and oddly funny.
Unable to retreat into the safety and comfort of night, Aster instead opts to slowly unnerve, rather than straight up terrify. When his wide angled/deep-focused lens isn’t showcasing the lush fields and natural splendour surrounding his actors, we begin to notice some truly peculiar behaviours, unsettling murals and increasingly morbid rituals.
As the festivities shift from the theatrical, to disturbing to the downright wicked, Aster loosens his grip and allows for unhinged absurdity. It’s here where many pundits have taken issue with the film. Given how brutally realistic his opening depictions of mental illness and relational toxicity are, the film’s slow descent into the ludicrous may be a hard mushroom for some to swallow. While there’s enough control to avoid the film from slipping into unintentional self-parody, it did provoke consistent laughs in our audience. Some I’m sure were intended. Others were not.
If you want the film to work purely as a scarefest, you will be left disappointed. The slow burning 147 minute run-time certainly hinders the overall effectiveness of the tension at times. It’s hard to sustain such corrosive dread at such a leisurely pace. However, if you’ve ever been in or witnessed an emotionally abusive relationship and you choose to view the film as a committed dissection of human drama and relationship disconnectedness, then this is sure to hit a chord inside you. There’s an emotional truth on display here that we seldom see from this genre.
If you’ve seen the original The Wicker Man, there’s an obvious trajectory at play here that Aster is building towards and there’s fun in seeing how we arrive at that place. Midsommar is as Aster himself describes – a pervert’s Wizard of Oz. With paganism and hallucinatory imagery aplenty, Dani must follow the yellow-tripped road to discover her true power and place. It’s an endurance test for both protagonist and viewer alike. And while his bloated ambitious second feature may not always hit its mark, you can’t help but admire Aster for making another film with immense staying power.