In 2018, Ari Aster exploded onto the horror scene with his Freshman effort, Hereditary. After nearly netting Toni Collette an Oscar nomination and bringing a whole new weight to peanut allergies, he’s moved on to a new examination of grief, and a new kind of terror. Midsommar brings fear to broad daylight and piercing laughter to the most unexpected moments.
In the wake of an unimaginable tragedy, college student Dani and her prototypically bad college boyfriend Christian join a group of friends on an adventure to Sweden and a rare Midsommar celebration. Here’s what they know: It only happens once every 90 years and it will leave you changed. In a land where the sun never sets and the outside world seems to fall away, there is only ritual and exploration.
What starts as a sun-drenched escape gradually transforms into a waking nightmare that reveals deep secrets and forces not-so-hidden truths to the surface. Midsommar largely sticks to the script you’d anticipate in terms of its horror, where it surprises is in its comedy. Sharp dialogue pierces the tension just as it reaches the point of unbearable, and so, we’re drawn back in for another day, another ritual, another glimpse. It’s an indulgent bit of filmmaking that nonetheless compels attention.
Ari Aster may well have subscribed to his own hype, and he’s made a less technically disciplined film for it. Still, his screenwriting skills are more pronounced, the story is less arduous, and the visuals positively sear onto the mind. Try to forget the image of Florence Pugh in an elaborate flower gown. Or the flash of a burning building. Try to shake the visceral smack that punctuates a ritual or blink away the sunlight. There’s simply no escaping the atmosphere of Midsommar, and if it weren’t for an astonishing lead performance, the aesthetics would be the undeniable highlight of the film.
As it happens, Florence Pugh is a revelation. Her big reactions are pitch perfect, but the subtle work she uses in the film’s quieter moments is what announces the arrival of a star to be reckoned with. In a glance, she illuminates suspicion, doubt, fear, longing. With a gesture, she belies unease and appears every bit the doting girlfriend. Her eyes flood with emotion even as her face remains resolute. The layers of nuance she finds in a sparse on-screen universe are the one element that make Midsommar essential viewing.
For their parts, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter and William Jackson Harper balance out the emotional labor and heft of Pugh’s journey with a heavy dose of post-grad bro that inspires everything from chortles to eyerolls and puts the bizarre habits of the Swedish community into an almost forgiving light.
That levity breaks the tension to great effect, but without Florence Pugh, this would be a solid genre picture with a black comedy edge — and that would work out for a fair few film enthusiasts. With Florence Pugh as its beating heart, Midsommar becomes a singular emotional odyssey that ultimately stands out as a highlight of the summer.
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