When A24 approached writer/director Ari Aster with Midsommar, the project was envisioned as a traditional slasher flick in a Swedish setting. Had the film stayed on this course, we might’ve gotten something more along the lines of Eli Roth’s Hostel. Under Aster’s control, however, Midsommar is more like a modern Wicker Man. No, not the version that inspired a million “not the bees” memes. The 1973 original was clearly more of an inspiration for Aster here, although that wasn’t necessarily his greatest influence. Aster also apparently took a page from Modern Romance, a 1981 comedy by Albert Brooks. Indeed, there are moments in Midsommar that veer into sheer comedy territory, leaving the audience uncertain whether they should laugh hysterical or squirm in terror. In the end, you settle on a little of both.
Aster’s Hereditary was one of the best and scariest films to come out of this golden age of horror. Midsommar is very similar while somehow being completely different. Both touch upon themes of grief, mental health, how a lack of communication can lead to an eruption of chaos. Each film has a distinctive look and tone, though. Where Hereditary kept its audience concealed in darkness, the setting of Midsommar is plagued by unrelenting sunlight. A majority of the action in Hereditary took place in a suburban house that appeared normal on the surface, but hosted something much more devious within. In Midsommar, it becomes clear that several tourists are in danger from the second they arrive in a Swedish village. Even in the face of certain death, this sunny backdrop is bizarrely intoxicating. Part of you wants to run for the hills while the other half wants to drink the Kool-Aid and stay there forever.
The environment is the true star in Midsommar, although that’s not to say the film is lacking in stellar performances. Toni Collette should’ve gotten a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her work in Hereditary and chances are Florence Pugh will also go sadly overlooked when next awards season rolls around. Pugh is striking as Dani, a young woman whose world implodes within a matter of seconds. In the wake of her personal tragedy, Dani is mostly treated as a nuisance by her jerky boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). Christian had been wanting to call it quits with Dani for a while, but now just feels trapped in a relationship that’s only festering with time. Unable to escape Dani, Christian invites her to tag along on a Sweden getaway with his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), the latter of whom is native to the village they’re visiting.
The grassy fields and barns that make up the village are decorated by murals that only grow more disturbing the more you dissect them. Just as unsettling as the décor are the people who populate the area. Despite their welcoming nature, there’s always a sense of suspicion that has Dani sleeping with one eye open. With each passing day, however, Dani’s defenses become weaker while her sanity crumbles. Just as the sun rarely sets in this place, Midsommar wears its audience down like they’ve been strapped under a giant heat lamp. If you haven’t walked out by the half-way point, it likely means that you’ve given into the madness and genius of Ari Aster.
Is Midsommar the horror masterpiece that Hereditary was? Not quite, but it is a sign of Aster’s range as a filmmaker. While Midsommar could easily take place in the same universe as Hereditary, Aster still distinguishes his latest film with visuals that’ll burn their way into your subconscious and a sense of humor that’ll tickle you at the most uncomfortable times. Like Hereditary, the film is also bound to split audiences with its abundance of graphic body horror and psychological trickery. The experience should prove especially trialing for couples who go in expecting a date movie and instead get a film that demonstrates how brutal breakups can be. For audiences with an open mind and fans of surreal horror, though, you won’t be able to resist unearthing the darkness buried under the light.