There’s a brutal beauty to be found in the pinched, painful quiet that exists between two people in conflict.
From awkward silences and resentful shrugs to the crippling devastation of a disaffected glare, humans can say so much, and inflict such damage, without ever speaking a word.
Ari Aster is one of the few directors working today capable of capturing the simmering rage and weary frustration that infects people in turmoil, and transferring it like a sinister virus from the screen to his audience.
Aster doesn’t create horror movies so much as he simply magnifies the everyday defeats and setbacks, the disappointments and the disregarded affections that poison people from the inside out.
In 2018, with Hereditary, Aster showcased a family imploding from the weight of a transformation rooted in dank, demonic prophecy. It was brilliant, blistering and wholly unexpected, especially for a first-time director, and immediately raised the bar for whatever he chose to do next.
Much like Jordan Peele, who caught the world by surprise in 2017 with Get Out, there’s no escaping the weight of expectation that follows such an accomplished debut. There can be no sophomore slump, no slip in the gait, which is why it was so exciting to see Peele roar back two years later this past March with the audacious, equally ambitious Us.
Aster, however, barely waited a full year. Just 13 months later, he too is roaring back with Midsommar, which is possibly the darkest love letter ever filmed about finding one’s voice and cutting the ties that hold us down.
If you’ve seen the trailers, and you consider yourself a connoisseur of horror, then you immediately assumed that Midsommar is Aster’s stab at the pagan altar built and burnt by The Wicker Man.
Yes, the film takes place in the midnight-sun-kissed valleys and jagged mountain tops of an isolated, rural community in Hälsingland. And, yes, everyone there, at least the locals, all wear white, handmade, unisex uniforms and dance around a maypole wearing crowns of blooming flowers. They gulp down herbal tea mixed with hallucinogens and they seem completely happy, one large unit comprised of many bodies surviving as one. Such uniformity is pertinent to the story because it’s only by seeing everyone in the same light that you can then start to recognize their individual differences.
Comparisons to The Wicker Man, then, are valid, but you’d be foolish to believe that’s all there is.
Midsommar is a two-and-a-half-hour rumination on our inability to communicate, with others or ourselves; on our innate embrace of the comfort that complacency breeds; and on our unwavering unwillingness to recognize that nothing good can grow from a scorched field full of fetid dirt.
Dani (Florence Pugh) has spent four years trapped in a claustrophobic, codependent approximation of a relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor). He’s the physical embodiment of the Ativan that she frantically seeks out whenever reality becomes too much, but there’s little love to be found between them.
After Dani’s reality is rocked by a gruesome tragedy, it makes sense why she would decide last-minute to accompany Christian on a getaway with college pals Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) so their foreign-exchange bud, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), can welcome them to the folksy commune where he grew up, and introduce them to a nine-day festival that only happens every 90 years.
And, it makes just as much sense why Christian can’t tell her no, don’t go, even though he wants nothing more than to be alone with the guys in another country searching for strange. You almost — almost — feel for the guy.
Aster mercilessly, almost sadistically, amplifies the strain between Dani and Christian through subtle slips — he forgets her birthday and later incorrectly answers when asked how long they’ve been dating — and overt revelations. At one point, after an artifact goes missing, Christian all but accuses his supposed friends and, to her surprise, disavows any association to them.
But Midsommar is not Christian’s story.
Aster’s focus is Dani, a woman who has lived so long in the shadow of everyone else around her that she’s forgotten her own strength. As Dani is drawn deeper into the ceremonial family circle, as she competes in trials, especially those that celebrate and champion endurance, something magical takes hold.
Much like Peter’s ascension in Hereditary from high school student to demonic vessel, Dani literally transforms right before the audience’s eyes, and Pugh’s performance is a wonder to behold.
Obviously, with such a long film, there’s a lot of other stuff that happens, but Aster wisely relegates much of that activity off-camera, just out of sight, so as to keep the audience’s gaze firmly fixed on his leading lady.
Midsommar is a nightmare born of our basic existence, fueled by the horror that we readily invite into our everyday lives, and it establishes Aster as one of the premiere directors working today, regardless of genre.
At its core, it’s the story of two people discovering that sometimes breaking up is the hardest thing we’ll ever do. But in Aster’s deliciously dark care, Midsommar shows just how liberating, euphoric and bloody it can be, too.
John W. Allman has spent more than 25 years as a professional journalist and writer, but he’s loved movies his entire life. Good movies, awful movies, movies that are so gloriously bad you can’t help but champion them. Since 2009, he has cultivated a review column and now a website dedicated to the genre films that often get overlooked and interviews with cult cinema favorites like George A. Romero, Bruce Campbell and Dee Wallace. Contact him at Blood Violence and Babes.com, on Facebook @BloodViolenceBabes or on Twitter @BVB_reviews.