Ari Aster shook up the horror world in 2018 with Hereditary. A large contingent of fans were calling for Toni Collette to win an Oscar for her portrayal of Annie, a mother dealing with unimaginable grief and battling against her family’s history of mental illness. And those fans weren’t wrong. Collette turned in one of the more powerful performances I have ever witnessed.
Great as she was, Hereditary was more than just Collette. It showed off the confident and steady hand of Aster, acting as writer/director in his debut feature film. The combination of story, acting and setting built a creeping dread and ended in an absolutely terrifying and disturbing finale. It’s a movie I’ve never quite gotten out of my head, so I was thrilled to see what he would do next.
As much as I tried to prepare myself for Midsommar, there was no way I could have been prepared. It was different from Hereditary in almost every way. Hereditary lived in the dark corners and Midsommar operates almost entirely in daylight. Beyond just the daylight, Midsommar takes place in an absolutely gorgeous setting. It’s a place I’d love to visit if I thought I wouldn’t get murdered really hard. (Even then, it’s so gorgeous I might take the chance.)
Unlike a lot of horror films set in wide open spaces, I never really felt claustrophobic. I knew something evil was lurking behind the behind smiles, and I knew it would be only a matter of time before the hammer was going to fall, but I never felt trapped.
Let’s get to the plot and the players: Dani (Florence Pugh) has experienced a horrifying family tragedy that she is struggling to deal with. Her boyfriend of 4 years, Christian (Jack Reynor) is looking for a way out of the relationship, but he can’t really end it now, can he? Not after what just happened? So he sticks it out, thinking he’s doing Dani a favor, while spending the bulk of his time focusing only on himself.
Christian and his grad-student buddies Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) urge Christian to dump Dani, while also getting ready to travel to Pelle’s village in Sweden for their midsummer festival. Dani invites herself along, everyone takes drugs, and they get a different experience than they were hoping for.
First things first: Pugh is incredible as Dani, regularly conveying complex emotions with nothing more than a look in her eye or a slight change in facial expression. She also would occasionally break, letting loose with primal screams that showed the depth of her anguish, and highlighted just how much she had been keeping bottled up inside. Her grief is palpable, as is her growing recognition that she is in a deteriorating relationship with a checked-out boyfriend. She was mesmerizing.
The entire cast was incredible. Reynor played the “trying to be sincere and supportive but really just wanting to jump ship” boyfriend perfectly. Harper was incredible as a toned-down Chidi (his Good Place character), focused solely on how the events unfolding before him could fit into his thesis. Poulter was great as the stereotypical American, loudly proclaiming anything happening outside of his comfort zone as crazy and terrible. He just wanted to spend some time among the beautiful people, hoping for some sexy time.
Like Hereditary, grief is at the center of Midsommar. The movie kicks off with a horrific event, setting everything in motion. The first 15 minutes or so even have the look and feel of Hereditary: a grisly scene in a dark suburban house. It was impossible to watch the opening and not think about the third act of Hereditary. I was checking the corners of the room (and theater) for something that may have been hiding just out of view, waiting for my eyes to get adjusted before appearing.
But Aster isn’t quite so predictable as all that. There are no hiding monsters creeping in the corners. The horror is in plain sight, even if the acts themselves may take place just off screen.
That’s not to say that everything takes place off screen. There are plenty of brutal scenes, all lit by the harsh light of day. Aster doesn’t revel in the violence or imagery, but he doesn’t shy away from it, either.
At the end of it, what I carry with me from Midsommar is a feeling. When I watch Hereditary, I carried a feeling of dread with me. The final act was so intense and disturbing that I couldn’t quite shake it. Midsommar was different. There were acts of pure horror and strong images in the third act, but I didn’t leave with a feeling of dread; not totally, anyway. I walked out of the theater in a kind of a haze, not entirely sure how to process what I had just seen but feeling somewhat hopeful. There was still a sneaky feeling of dread and darkness lurking in the background, but I felt a light that I didn’t feel with Hereditary. I felt Dani’s grief, but I also felt a sense of hope. Even though things could never be the same for Dani after the events at the beginning of the film, that it doesn’t mean it’s the end of everything.
More than anything, Midsommar really highlighted the strength in supportive female relationships. Throughout the movie, Dani seemed lost. She was trying to find a way to deal with a devastating event, but she was afraid to show her true feelings for fear of what might happen to her relationship. What would her boyfriend think? Would it push him away? How would his friends react? It wasn’t until she became close with the women in the community that we began seeing Dani realize how little support Christian actually supplied. Grief isn’t something to be suffered alone: it’s something to be shared with people who love and care. It doesn’t always mean sitting silently and patting your back. It can be messier than that, and seeing Dani with a strong, supportive group of women who understood that was extremely powerful.
Midsommar is a horrifying and beautiful look at the deepest grief imaginable and finding a way out of the darkness through the power of femininity and the bond of community.
Dusty Evely | Twitter: @DustyEvely