Midsommar, a disturbing, ambitious, and unsettlingly colorful new horror movie from the writer-director of Hereditary, unfolds within a remote village in northern Sweden, a land where the sun never completely sets. The place doesn’t look especially threatening, in its bucolic summer-camp splendor, and neither do its residents, a community of calm, welcoming, very… Swedish hippies, decked out in white frocks and garlands, smiles plastered perennially across their faces. Audiences will, of course, know to instinctively distrust them; in a horror movie about a cult, the true believers often come on friendly, the better to lure sacrificial lambs to the slaughter. But in Midsommar, that mask of holistic, New-Age-that’s-really-very-Old-Age congeniality never entirely slips, even when the bloodshed starts. And that’s a big part of the movie’s black magic, its spooky-queasy power: It makes madness look like an extension of the commune’s blissed-out worldview—a benevolent malevolence.
“Folk horror” is the label often applied to this especially pagan variety of creepfest, a subgenre that peaked in the early 1970s with the enduring town-with-a-secret mystery The Wicker Man. It’s not a huge leap for Ari Aster, the diabolically gifted filmmaker at the helm of Midsommar. Hereditary, his harrowing shocker of a debut, also built its scares on the insidious machinations of a cult. But its horror was anthropological in another sense: As effective and expertly orchestrated as the haunted-house jolts were, the film’s true down-to-the-bone terror lay in what it found festering in the recesses of its heroine’s mind, a bubbling cauldron of grief and resentment. It was a scary movie about how truly scary it can be to live inside your own head.
There’s an element of that, too, in Midsommar, which confirms Aster as a new kind of midnight-movie maestro—an emotional exorcist, using genre to purge some very dark thoughts. Once again, he’s built a horror film on a bedrock of trauma: the sudden, shattering loss faced by Dani (Florence Pugh), who finds herself alone in the world with no one but her grad-student beau, Christian (Jack Reynor), for support. Christian, it quickly becomes clear, is not exactly boyfriend of the year material. He’s a distant, shiftless slacker who treats every phone call from her like a burden. As the film opens, he’s plotting to finally break things off—a plan derailed, understandably, by the sudden tragedy that consumes his partner’s life. But the tension between them remains, only intensifying once Dani essentially invites herself on an upcoming overseas vacation Christian has planned with his friends, a trip to the ancestral homeland of soft-spoken Swedish pal Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren).
Seeds of conflict successfully planted, the film shifts from the snowy bleakness of the States to the sun-dappled beauty of Hälsingland, the secluded, idyllic, woodland home of the Hårga, a tribe that’s been practicing the same ancient customs for centuries—including a festival that occurs once every 90 years, and which Dani, Christian, and the others have flown out to experience firsthand. Over a few days, the visitors gradually realize just how far they’ve strayed from civilization. If Hereditary operated as a kind of gauntlet of external and psychological terrors, Midsommar modulates its intensity: It wants to creep under your skin, not constantly jangle your nerves. The film builds a whole world for the Hårga—a hodgepodge of European tradition, folklore, and mythology—and then slowly envelops us in its rituals, as surely as its characters are sucked into the clutches of the cult. Throughout, an element of culture-clash comedy persists, much of it built on the characters’ inability (or unwillingness) to read the warning signs around them.
Aster, it can’t be denied, possesses an almost supernatural command of dread. He knows how to hold a shot just long enough to create pinpricks of discomfort, to disorient with an abrupt cutaway, to drop stomachs with the godlike perch and glare of his camera. And he recognizes the power of some sparingly deployed gore—there’s a doozy of a sequence here, casual in its grotesque bodily injury, that rivals Hereditary in the cruel shock department. Yet for all the sophistication of its craft, Midsommar occasionally resembles a highfalutin treatment of a stock B-horror premise: the insensitive Americans bumbling blithely into danger. In this case, those roles are occupied by The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper, very Chidi-esque as a budding anthropologist whose academic zeal could have deadly consequences, and Will Poulter as the token dumbass horndog, so overburdened with village-idiot duty that the movie even seems to supply him with a few ADR lines of shit talk. This is also one of those horror movies that depends on the characters sticking around well past the point that any sensible person would get the hell out of dodge.
“It’s cultural,” one of these in-over-their-head tourists rationalizes when the Hårga’s rituals take their first turn for the horrifically primeval. Is the group’s refusal to extricate themselves from the situation so different than Christian’s stubborn insistence on staying in an unhappy relationship out of social obligation? Certainly, Dani sees something vaguely but undeniably attractive about the Hårga, a close-knit (and dominantly feminine) society whose perverse attitudes about death look at least a little like a healthy alternative to her grief. If only we really got to see inside her head or heart. Aster, who claims to have written the film on the business end of a nasty breakup, structures Midsommar like a kind of unholy relationship study, the same way Hereditary wrapped an anguished domestic drama in poltergeist shawl. But for all the raw, physical intensity Pugh brings to the role (it’s her second knockout performance of the year), she’s been given a much sketchier character to play than Toni Collette was—a cipher of impenetrable despair. As a result, the bad romance feels malnourished, especially with Reynor—so charismatic as the burnout older brother of Sing Street—stuck playing a one-dimensional cad.
At two hours and 20 minutes, Midsommar is the kind of swing-for-the-fences passion project, the kind of operatic opus, you make when you’re fresh off a runaway success. The cult ceremonies, drug-enhanced pagan reveries conducted under the endlessly beating sun, seem to unfurl in real time; they threaten, occasionally, to push past hypnotic and into tedious. This is, in other words, a less perfectly crafted nightmare than Aster’s last one. But there’s a deranged integrity to its sprawl, and to the filmmaker’s willingness to embrace the darkest, most unsparing aspects of human desire. In its closing stretch, Midsommar achieves a terrible, apocalyptic transcendence, through an ending that’s frankly stunning in where it’s willing to go—and where its characters are willing to go—in search of catharsis. Madness, we’re reminded, can look like wisdom through the right eyes, or like liberation in the wrong (blinding day) light.
Note: A24 provided airfare and lodging to The A.V. Club for the world premiere screening of Midsommar.