Ari Aster’s sophomore feature Midsommar is one of the more highly anticipated Horror films in recent years. Coming off the 2018’s critical and commercial hit Hereditary, Midsommar premieres in theaters on Wednesday, July 3rd through A24. So the question is: does it live up to expectations?
In short, Aster once again builds a slow burn story around broken relationships, tragedy, and clandestine cult activity. Focusing on a despondent couple who should have ended their partnership some time ago, Aster described this film as a break up story dressed up as a Horror movie. Not an inaccurate description, it is perhaps why Midsommar doesn’t hit all the notes some are expecting. The story follows leading characters Dani (Florence Pugh: The Falling 2014, Florence Pugh: Lady Macbeth 2016) and Christian (Jack Reynor: What Richard Did 2012, Jack Reynor: Glassland 2014), who are in bad shape as a couple: they do not communicate well, their plans together are negligible and easily forgotten, and they each seem so fed up with one another that every interaction seems to be a potential catalyst for a fight. When Dani suffers a terrible tragedy, these problems are exacerbated, but a last ditch effort to save the relationship is a trip to Sweden, more specifically, the hippie-like commune one of Christian’s friends is from.
The remote compound could not be further from civilization, however, it is quite beautiful. A small, self-sustaining community of maybe a couple of hundred people max, they are gracious and welcoming to their new guests, who, aside from Dani and Christian, aren’t very compelling characters. According to their friend, the commune-born hippie Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren: Gösta series), they are preparing for the Midsommar festival – an annual event celebrating fertility and harvest. But this Midsommar is a special one that takes places every 90 years, a first and last for everyone there.
Things do not take long to turn bizarre. The insides of the buildings are adorned with magnificent artwork depicting strange pagan rituals, many of a disturbing nature. The second day of the trip is when things truly start to unravel, when the first major event of this special Midsommar leaves the foreigners completely shaken and wanting out. Unfortunately for them, they have a bigger part to play in the festivities. There are also lots of drugs, specifically hallucinogens, which the visitors take as soon as they arrive and fairly often throughout in the form of mushrooms, teas, and other offerings from the cultists. This adds to the nightmare experience of the Midsommar festival and has some practical uses in the later rituals.
These details provided, Midsommar has a lot of good elements but too many of them seem thrown together haphazardly and do not gel as well as they ought to. The supporting characters are barely interesting, and the dialogue they’re given ranges from standard young, obnoxious American traveler to downright cringe in some parts. There are more deteriorating relations that happen between some of them, but none nearly as important or compelling as that of Dani and Christian, and ultimately the audience might not care much for their fates.
Florence Pugh is excellent in the lead role as Dani. Although perhaps directed to cry and run away a bit too much, she embodies the pain Dani goes through, and there is a lot of it. From her family tragedies to her crumbling relationship and aloof and uncaring boyfriend, Dani does not have an easy time anywhere in this story and the most important parts require that pain to be front and center, which Pugh conveys wonderfully. Reynor is good as Christian but doesn’t have the same impact Pugh does by a longshot. Christian is a character who the men in the audience might side with at first in the whole break up situation, but as the story progresses some of his more distasteful traits emerge and they’ll learn that maybe Dani should have been the one to pull the trigger on a break up not him. Their relationship is the heart of this movie and is thankfully written and acted well, more than can be said for some other aspects.
The cinematography is fantastic and the costume and set designers also should get a lot of credit. The camerawork seems perfectly tailored during the different moods and reality-bending trips, and the pagan cult’s outfits, buildings, artwork, and artifacts couldn’t be much better. However, the runtime is one of the bigger issues. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, this will not be everyone’s pace and really could have been cut down to 2 hours without missing much. There are several red herrings and one of the most visible things used in the marketing turns out to be nothing important. It can make the viewers feel like they are on a journey for something that was never there and leave them underwhelmed. Additionally, some of the more serious emotional parts in the later half of the film are handled in a way that’s almost laughable, which really puts a damper on their impact.
Overall, Midsommar is a mixed bag that does most of its most important elements right but stumbles in many supporting areas. Pugh’s performance, the setting and cinematography, and the vibe of the cult are the best parts, but the length and overarching story of a break up movie masquerading as a Horror flick will no doubt leave some viewers feeling like they invested in something that didn’t deliver what they expected.
Not a bad film by any stretch and a worthy sophomore effort from Aster, but this one does not have the same impact and lasting impression of the film that got him here. For these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives Midsommar 3.5 out of 5 stars.