When thinking of horror as a film genre, dark (and most likely haunted) settings, creepy monsters and sudden jump scares may come to mind. These are concepts director Ari Aster dutifully laid to rest when creating Midsommar, his second feature-length effort after Hereditary last year and second release with A24. Without beating around the bush, Midsommar is stunning on every technical level – dazzling cinematography, breathtaking set design and a high-concept script that demands strong performances from its able cast. For the second time in a row, Aster has proven a movie can still be terrifying while being a work of art. And you just might hate it for that.
You’ll never find Aster directing for Blumhouse, because his work is starkly different from the Conjurings and Annabelles releasing today. Driven more by concept than actual grounded story, Aster’s films establish negative relationships between its characters and sensationalize them into the horrors that haunt and punish them. Take the relationship between the two lead characters – Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) are a dysfunctional couple. When the film first opens to a snow-dusted New York City, we see Christian on the verge of breaking up with her, something he’s apparently been putting off for the last year. But after a tragedy in Dani’s family leaves her broken, he feels trapped into staying with her, comforting her with a vacant look in his eye as she sobs on his lap. Soon, the sun is shining, summer is here, and they’re still together.
Dani, Christian and some of Christian’s friends decide to spend some of the summer at a friend’s remote commune in Sweden. They’re there for a festival that happens only once every 90 years, and the idyllic beauty of the village should take their minds off of their crumbling relationship, and should also give cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski some nods come awards season. But between the acid trips, odd behavior from the locals and alarming pagan traditions, it’s clear there’s more to the festival than they know.
The film was originally envisioned as a straightforward slasher flick, and still follows the general pattern. But Aster’s direction elevates the concept, making the predictable still unpredictable and every passing moment vibrate with unease. From the moment the first sip of psychedelic-infused tea passes Dani’s lips, we’re on track for a nightmare of bright colors and violent rituals. And what a beautiful nightmare it is – Aster rarely utilizes darkness, placing the majority of the trippy, gory and/or obscene horrors in broad daylight in our sunny Swedish utopia. Computer effects make it look like the bark on trees is crawling like ants, and in one dinner scene it’s hard to tell exactly what’s on the menu because sections of the table are turning spherical like bubbles. The movie is a trip gone wrong in more ways than one, and it never looks less than gorgeous.
To that effect, there’s always multiple things to watch unfolding on screen. Aster likes to use stationary wide shots that show multiple levels of a setting, characters milling in and out of the background while others speak in the foreground, similar to a stage show. In one scene, a character being put under a hex is drinking liquid a different color than what everyone else is drinking, a detail that’s never pointed out, but serves to enhance the world-building and lore of the story. Aster may still be testing techniques out this early in his directing career, but he’s already a master of camera control.
It’s ironic that everything on the screen is so luscious and eye-grabbing when you’ll spend most of it wanting to look away. Don’t read this review and run out and buy a ticket without knowing that this movie tests what you are willing to sit through as a film-goer. It’s scary, but more importantly, it’s absolutely skin-crawling. You know something awful is about to happen, and usually, you know what it will be. But the film makes you sit and wait, staring it right in the eye, dreading it as much as the characters are and making the anticipation the worst part. Midsommar is a movie you’ll appreciate after the credits roll, when it’s still a heavy weight on your mind long after another horror movie would have faded. It just may not feel that way while you’re watching it – but, that’s the point.
Celebrate midsummer in theaters July 3.