College student Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) is already suffering from depression, but when her sister commits a murder-suicide of Dani’s entire family it drives her to her emotional limits. She takes respite in a trip from the USA to Sweden with her boyfriend to visit a reclusive Swedish religious community as part of an anthropology research assignment.
Given that Ari Aster’s Midsommar is widely telegraphed in its publicity as a horror film, it is not unreasonable to head into it with a fair degree of apprehension. Clearly something horrifying is about to befall Dani and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), and the question hangs in the air for much of the film’s first act over what precise form the horror will take.
It is a question made all the more open-ended by Midsommar‘s setting: summer in the northern reaches of Sweden mean that the sun never actually sets. Decades of tradition have trained an audience into thinking that horror films take place at night. That Midsommar occurs over what is effectively an unending daytime throws it off balance. We no longer know what to expect; the longer the film goes on, the more the expectations go diverted or unmet. This is a powerful and emotionally devastating horror film, and it seems particularly disturbing as much for what it isn’t as for what it ultimately is.
Aster primarily avoids shock moments and jump scares to generate the film’s effect. Instead it’s a collection of slow-burning scenes of dread and constantly rising tension. The film’s frightening and shocking moments are deliberately telegraphed far in advance, leaving the viewer to simply watch events that are as unimaginable as they are inevitable. It forms part of a long-running seam of horror cinema known as ‘folk horror’, typified by Robin Hardy’s 1973 classic The Wicker Man but also evident in such works as Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013): rural settings, unexplained traditions and rituals, and unsuspecting city folk confronted with something terrible.
I am being deliberately vague about anything in Midsommar beyond its basic premise because so much of its power as a movie experience is in how it develops and surprises. It is a long watch, particularly on home video where Aster’s directors cut runs a formidable 171. It does not feel indulgent or wasteful: the longer length delivers a sustained experience rich in emotion and power.
Florence Pugh continues to impress as one of cinema’s most exciting new talents. Between this, Little Women, and Park Chan-wook’s TV miniseries The Little Drummer Girl, she has proven herself to be well deserving of the praise being showered upon her. Midsommar would not be half of the film it is without her at its centre. Indeed it is a film actively sculpted around its protagonist, to the degree that her emotional journey is as critical to its success as any of its horror content. Without Pugh there effectively would not be a film to praise.
The supporting cast are excellent, particularly English actor Will Poulter as Christian’s odious friend Mark – I first saw Poulter in the BBC’s sketch comedy series School of Comedy, and from that to The Voyage of the Dawntreader to Detroit to this, he has showcased a remarkable career progression.
This is a remarkably effective film. While it may frustrate some viewers, and present an absolute affront to the tastes of others, for the discerning fan of screen horror it is an absolute must-see.