Christian (Jack Reynor) cannot give Dani (Florence Pugh) the emotional ballast she needs to survive. This was probably the case even before the family tragedy that occurs in Midsommar’s literal cold open, in which flurries of snow limn the dissolution of Dani’s family. We’re dropped into her trauma, introduced to her only through her trauma and her need for support she can’t get, and this is all we know about her: She is traumatized, and her boyfriend is barely decent enough to hold her, to stay with her because of a begrudging obligation to her fragile psyche. His long, deep sighs when they talk on the phone mirror the moaning, retching gasps Pugh so often returns to in panic and pain. Her performance is visceral. Midsommar is visceral. There is viscera, just, everywhere.
As in his debut, Hereditary, writer-director Ari Aster casts Midsommar as a conflagration of grief—as in Hereditary, people burst into flames in Midsommar’s climactic moments of ultimate purgation—and no ounce of nuance will keep his characters from gasping, choking and hollering all the way to their bleakly inevitable ends. Moreso than in Hereditary, what one assumes will happen to our American 20-somethings does happen, prescribed both by decades of horror movie precedent and by the exigencies of Aster’s ideas about how human beings process tragedy. Aster births his worlds in pain and loss; chances are it’ll only get worse.
So it seems for Christian and his grad bros when they decide to join their Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) for a trip home to attend his community’s Midsummer celebration. Chain-vaping jerkwad Mark (Will Poulter) and fickle asshole academic Josh (William Jackson Harper) can’t quite convince Christian to break up with Dani, their douche-y haranguing complicated by Dani’s trauma (turns out she hasn’t been exaggerating her family’s problems) the closer they get to the date they leave. Of course, that means Christian feels like he has to ask Dani to come with them to Sweden, hoping she won’t. Of course she will. And of course Pelle refuses to give his traveling companions any details about what their vacation holds besides a few bucolic photos of dancing women in floral wreaths.
In the bright sunlight and remote wilderness of Pelle’s family’s village, Aster punishes his leads. Though the guys are anthropologists, and their reluctance to question “other cultures”—as well as the blinding blue of the sky, the region bathed in perpetual day at that time of year, not to mention the constant supply of hallucinogens they’re slipped during all waking hours—obfuscates the horror awaiting them, Aster spares no cruelty. As Dani gains something of a new perspective on her grief through her time with the commune, an understanding of her pain she’s never known before, the men in her life, avatars for toxic masculinity and American chauvinism and capitalistic excess, try to talk their way around tribal tradition and lust after pale virgins. Aster pits Dani’s salvation from her trauma against these dipshits getting what they deserve.
One gets the sense watching Midsommar that Aster’s got everything assembled rigorously, that he’s the kind of guy who can’t let anything go—from the meticulously thought-out belief system and ritual behind his fictional rural community, to the composition of each and every shot. Aster and his DP Pawel Pogorzelski find the soft menace inherent to their often beautiful setting, unafraid of just how ghastly and unnatural such brightly colored flora can appear—especially when melting or dilating, breathing to match Dani’s huffs and the creaking, wailing goth-folk of The Haxan Cloak. Among Midsommar’s most unsettling pleasures are its subtle digital effects, warping its reality ever so slightly (the pulsing of wood grain, the fish-eye lensing of a grinning person’s eye sockets) so that once noticed, you’ll want it to stop. Like a particularly bad trip, Midsommar bristles with the subcutaneous need to escape, with the dread that one is trapped. In this community in the middle of nowhere, in this strange culture, in this life, in your body and its existential pain: Aster imprisons us so that when the release comes, it’s as if one’s insides are emptying cataclysmically. In the moment, it’s an assault. It’s astounding.
But then, where does all of this cruelty take us? Aster might suggest that one only transcends grief through acceptance—and that acceptance is really annihilation. If only Aster could explore this through someone, something besides a choke-crying woman. If only we didn’t have The Wicker Man to lead us as obviously to Aster’s conclusion. If only Aster could convince us, too, that this is what his characters deserved, that this is what Christian and Mark and Josh and especially Dani have earned for simply being alive.
Director: Ari Aster
Writer Ari Aster
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren
Release Date: July 3, 2019
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.