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For as long as the horror genre has existed, it's told us to be afraid of the dark - that all corners of evil lie in the absence of light. Even applying simple logic to the matter, if many of cinema's most notable victims had simply been in the light of day they might have seen these terrors coming. This absolutism and assumption terminates with Ari Aster’s Midsommar, however. The brightness is turned up to 101 percent, all clichés are out the window, and it delivers one of the most unsettling experiences movie-going can offer.
What's particularly baffling about Midsommar is how it’s simultaneously a severely harrowing and exceedingly rewarding affair. Part of you hates it for what it puts you through and how it makes you feel: uneasiness escalating into queasy. But there’s also this stunning, ineffable, enduring quality about the experience it offers for an audience. Once you’ve survived and shaken off the initial “what the actual fuck” of it all, the remaining thought is that it’s an undeniable horror masterpiece.
It leaves scars. It’s disturbing images don’t flow in one ear and out; they pitch a tent in your brain and camp for the weekend…perhaps for a lifetime. Only time will tell. They bounce around in your head questing for answers and meaning. This is familiar sensation found within the processing of grief after the loss of a loved one, and it's a feeling to which Midsommar’s protagonist, Dani (Florence Pugh), is no stranger.
She’s deeply in love with and blindly dependent on her longtime boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), but their relationship is on the verge of falling apart. Just as he is ready to break up with her, Dani is struck by tragedy, and he's instead forced to begrudgingly invite her along on his bro trip with his friends (William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, and Vilhelm Blomgren). Together they trek to a remote Swedish village during a very special midsummer festival with shocking celebrations and rituals.
There’s a lot of lore flurrying through Midsommar as it slowly builds this entire perverse fantasy world right in front of you, and not every idea lands (a second viewing could prove me wrong). It’s unkind to audiences at times, growing and maintaining a level of dread so intense you might glance at the closest exit. Commit to staying to the end, though, because it will pay off.
Once what’s been seen is taken in, there is such an incredible breadth of ideas to consider and ways to interpret what it all means. Aster decided to write it after facing a breakup and through this lens, wow, does he have some weighty commentary. And that’s just one of the many discussions that the movie will evoke.
Florence Pugh is a revelation as Dani and the absolute heartbeat to Midsommar. The 23-year-old, who just dazzled in Fighting With My Family, pulls off a performance as bafflingly good as Midsommar’s bonkers concept. We so effortlessly feel what is happening is real in her emotional journey, and we’re right along with her. In her fever dream/nightmarish/tripped out encounters, up until the final, feverish expression on her face, she’s magic.
She’s joined by a talented young ensemble including Sing Street’s Jack Reynor, We’re The Millers’ Will Poulter and The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper, who bring some welcome humor into the mix. Midsommar surprisingly works really great as a comedy in places – it’s laugh out loud hilarious at times in the cleverest of ways.
Following the dark and dreary aesthetics of Aster’s breakout hit from last year, Hereditary, the movie’s setting is also an excellent shock - full of beautiful summer landscapes and bright blue skies to behold. But don’t let the beautiful flower crowns fool you. Aster’s twisted visions are even more powerful here - fueled by cult-inspired nightmares and practical body horror. There is no darkness to hide the ugliness - only light to amplify it.
The majority of Hereditary was about the things you don’t see. Midsommar has this gutsy abandon of convention that takes it to next-next level, and Aster’s relentlessness makes him quite possibly the most excitingly horrifying and intriguing young writer/directors.
If you thought Hereditary had some memorably insane moments, you haven’t seen anything yet. Looking at them both, it truly feels like we’re witnessing the dawn of a phenomenal filmmaker. Midsommar is an anti-horror film in many ways that dangerously opens up a terrifying new definition of the genre, and it's a hard-to-watch delight.