‘Midsommar’ review: Welcome to the sunny side of hell

Helmed by Ari Aster’s fearless direction, ‘Midsommar’ effectively elevates the dread and horror – even if there’s no discernible purpose other than shock value.

Note: This review contains mild spoilers, though you might have already deduced some of them in the trailer.

An unspeakable tragedy occurs in the opening sequence of Midsommar that should warn you to the amount of disturbing content this film has. Such outcome puts an anxiety-afflicted Dani (Florence Pugh) at her lowest low – a gut-wrenching moment when life strips everything away from her. Writer/director Ari Aster then continues her harrowing grieving process to Hårga, Sweden as her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is left with no option but to tag her along with his friends’ bro-getaway. Together, they participate in an ancestral, midsummer event that only happens every 90 years. How prestigious and exciting, right? The warning signs are abound, this most definitely looks like a cult trap. Yet for the crew who’s been intoxicated with psychedelic drugs the moment they stepped on the said village, they remain oblivious to that suggestion. For Dani, what awaits could be a shot at metamorphosis – even if the film’s execution evokes more confusion than catharsis.

Strangers in Sweden. William Jackson Harper (Josh), Will Poulter (Mark), Florence Pugh (Dani) and Jack Reynor (Christian) in ‘Midsommar.’

To his credit, Aster crafts a more comprehensible and straightforward film this time than his debut work in Hereditary. He foreshadows the horrors ahead of time with the aid of abundant symbolism incorporated in the film’s stylistic production design. Some are self-explanatory, hand-painted illustrations while some are iconography that won’t make sense unless you’ve read books about pagan rituals. Nevertheless, there’s a strange satisfaction once you see the bits and pieces fall into place – every character plays a part in this unsettling pagan tale. By then, things start to get sickening: grotesque rituals, body desecration, graphic nudity and religious hysteria – Midsommar has all of those things and more. Aster proves that he’s the type of filmmaker who pulls no punches.

But I’ve done my research and I found out that most, if not all, of the creepy traditions here don’t occur in Sweden. Maybe in other European countries during the medieval times but never in the Swedish present context. (The maypole dance does not count as creepy, by the way.) It appears that Aster is just using the midsummer festival as a backdrop for his handpicked Scandinavian pagan rituals. Sure, it’s a work of fiction after all. Yet why does Midsommar seem like a deliberate cultural misrepresentation? Not only is it a false depiction of beliefs and religion, it’s further amplified by the over-sensationalized R-18 elements simply presented for shock value. It even has a warped sense of humor to break the tension. Sometimes it works, but in one rape scene where the film elicits laughs from the audience, it feels very wrong and malicious. This is where the film’s sincerity looks questionable to me. Midsommar can feel indulgent on both narrative and aesthetic level.

Camaraderie in Swedish community. Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) comforts Dani in ‘Midsommar.’

Indeed, Midsommar is a film about many things. For one, Aster said himself that this is a “breakup movie dressed in the clothes of a horror folk film” and he does a great job in revealing the relationship cracks of the central couple. Dani’s traumatic experience prohibits an emotionally checked out Christian from breaking up with her. The latter can be a coward and an inept boyfriend but you really can’t blame the guy. Why would you stay in a codependent relationship that’s requiring more than you can give? In the same way, Dani can’t be faulted for all the unfortunate things that happened to her. Neither of them are inherently bad partners, both are just unhealthy for each other. But here we are, Aster drops their fragile relationship into the most extreme circumstances. In the process, some sort of spiritual awakening is gifted in the film’s final moments yet you can’t help but to frown on it. The message on empowerment and liberation does not exactly hold up since there’s not much autonomy involved. Diabolical external forces – not freewill – led the film’s biggest decision.

Christian and Dani reacts to a horrifying ritual in ‘Midsommar.’

That is not to say that Midsommar is a bad film. Suffice to say, it’s a fearless arthouse horror that won’t suit everyone’s taste. Aster’s phenomenal filmmaking alone warrants a 5 star rating for me. There’s an allure to his style – the way he plays with blocking, space, symmetry and even mirrors. Also noteworthy are his well-thought transitions, the most remarkable one being an overhead shot of Dani rushing to the bathroom only to end up in an airplane that’s headed to Europe. In some scenes, he intentionally makes you feel trippy and disoriented to bring out a visceral experience, while you gladly offer your patience in return. Teaming up once again with Hereditary cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, Aster concocts a nightmare set in the blistering broad daylight.

And lest we forget the excellent performances across the board, including Reynor’s character that calls a lot of courage to play. His deer in the headlights act gets a lot of mileage as it serves as a reflection of the viewer’s bewilderment to all the sinister stuff involved. But make no mistake, this is Florence Pugh’s show. She shows staggering control in an emotionally demanding role that requires complexity and manic endurance. From her widening pupils to her body tremors, she summons a huge deal of anguish and manages to deliver it in a relatable manner.

Florence Pugh delivers a Toni Collete performance in ‘Midsommar.’

Much of my fascination for Midsommar boils down to the craftsmanship involved and not necessarily the controversial subject matter presented. It demands a lot of energy to sit through and process. Like any significant heartbreak, it offers no easy answers. But whether you like it or not, one thing’s for sure, this film does not look like anything you’ve seen before. I just wish Aster will make use of his talents and skills to something that’s less hedonistic and more substantial in the long run.

3.5 out of 5 stars
Directed and written by Ari Aster, ‘Midsommar’ stars Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter, Ellora Torchia, Archie Madekwe, Henrik Norlén, Gunnel Fred and Isabelle Grill. 147 minutes. R-18.

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