2019 has been the year of mega-hyped horror directors taking surprising chances with their sophomore effort. David Robert Mitchell could have done just about anything after It Follows, yet few saw him cranking out a modern film noir like Under the Silver Lake which criticizes the type of men who fetishize pop culture – a direct rejection of many It Follows fans, it would seem – and the entire Hollywood system for abusing, objectifying, and commodifying women. Naturally, the film has been divisive. The same has been true of Jordan Peele’s Us, which follows the streamlined brilliance of Get Out with a far more ambitious doppelganger horror story that both defies logic and turns surprisingly apocalyptic.
Neither film quite matched the critical acclaim of their predecessors, and while Us at least made almost exactly the same amount of money as Get Out Under the Silver Lake was delayed and eventually written off by A24, unceremoniously dumped on VOD after an ultra-limited theatrical play.
Yet, if you ask a lot of hardcore cinephiles they’ll likely mount an impassioned argument for why Under the Silver Lake and Us are actually better, more interesting movies than It Follows and Get Out. It’s the inevitable and long-observed response whenever anything which achieves mainstream success is followed by something a bit more esoteric – the casual fan won’t know what to do with it, but the truly committed won’t stop thinking about it for weeks, if not months.
It remains to be seen if this familiar pattern will repeat itself with Ari Aster’s Midsommar, but all the ingredients are there. His first film, last year’s Hereditary, came out of nowhere to surprise everyone with its orgy of grief-induced dread and a career-best Toni Collette performance. It nearly set a box office record for its distributor, A24, and whether you choose to call it “elevated horror” or “horror” there’s ultimately no doubt which genre the film belongs to, particularly once the third act invokes familiar tropes like witches and demonic possession.
By comparison, Midsommar – which Aster wrote four years ago while going through a break-up and started pre-production work on before he’d even finished filming Hereditary – isn’t so easily categorized. Critics have been quick to lump it with other folk horror classics like Wicker Man or Cannibal Holocaust. Aster himself prefers to think of it as a wish fulfillment fairy tale that is, at best, only barely horror-adjacent. A24 is selling it as a horror movie about a break-up.
I choose to think of Midsommar as something far more primal. More than anything else, this movie is an experience, a leisurely-paced exercise in dread, grief, and the dire consequences of emotional dishonesty. A24, whose misleading horror trailers are now legendary, isn’t entirely mischaracterizing Midsommar by framing it as a horror movie about a couple whose already shaky relationship is going to be put to the biggest test imaginable.
The plot: Florence Pugh (a chameleon-like actress who has impressed ever since Lady Macbeth and will soon join the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and Jack Reynor (the Irish Chris Pratt) play Dani and Christian, two American post-grad college students who probably should have broken up years ago. When an unspeakable family tragedy strikes, however, Christian feels duty-bound to stay with Dani and support her, even though his support mostly comes in the form of empty platitudes and half-hearted offers.
For example, when his friends from the college’s anthropology department (Will Poulter, The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren) plan a research trip to a remote Swedish commune Christian invites Dani out of obligation, assuming she’ll never actually go. When she says yes, they’re stuck with her and the forced niceness is often suffocating.
This is why some people might argue the scariest part of Midsommar is actually its first 30 minutes. Similar to Hereditary, Aster trojan horses a dramatic film about grief and despair into the body of something closer to a familiar horror story. What is going to ultimately happen to these people when they reach Sweden is never really in doubt for anyone who has ever seen a movie like this before. Spoiler, the characters will slowly realize the endearingly quirky commune they’ve been observing might actually be a dangerous cult and not everyone is going to make it out alive.
However, the opening scenes are almost more unsettling than the eventual carnage because they so nakedly display a brand of emotional carnage you don’t often see in movies. The family tragedy, which I won’t spoil, is another case of Aster putting his characters through absolute worst-case scenario. After that, scenes in which Dani awkwardly mingles with Christian’s friends, all of whom tip toe around addressing here clearly fragile state, ring with an almost disturbing authenticity. So too do the sequences where Christian is so clearly playing at being what he thinks of as the good boyfriend. Dani continually accepts his shortcomings rather than standing up for herself and demanding a spouse who can actually give her what she needs.
It’s all so disturbing because it feels so real, smartly observed in a way which makes us squirm in our seats. It’s what the characters don’t say to each other which ultimately matters the most. As such, any couple on shaky ground probably shouldn’t use this movie as a date night because conversations afterward might turn into fights, with one spouse seeing themselves in Dani or Christian and the other not seeing that at all.
That being said, when Midsommar does finally move past its emotional carnage and masterfully mood-setting, “something isn’t right here” musings Aster plunges into a final half hour which, love or hate the film, you won’t soon forget. The characters, Dani especially, are ultimately taken on a disorienting, disturbing, and in some ways cathartic journey. Not everyone is going to enjoy taking that trip with them. However, it’s a day later and I can’t stop thinking about it. Midsommar is an experience quite unlike anything I’ve seen before. Skol!
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- Aster is suddenly the master of the ugly, heaving cry. He puts his characters through such pain that it comes out in soul-baring weeping that is almost uncomfortable to watch. Florence Pugh proves to be a master of it here.
- For what it’s worth, Midsommar has actually fared slightly better with general audiences than Hereditary, scoring a C+ CinemaScore versus Hereditary’s D+ and 72% RottenTomatoes audience score versus Hereditary’s 64%. However, I predict it will be less of a hit with horror audiences because it is much further away from the genre than Hereditary.
- What’s next for Aster? According to his Ringer interview, he has 11 scripts in a drawer somewhere and a financier set up to fund his next movie. Now he just has to pick which script he wants to use. He has it whittled down to two – a comedy and something he describes as “just very weird,” which would totally be on brand for him.
- My updated ranking, from most to least favorite, of A24’s horror films: Midsommar, Hereditary, The Witch, Green Room, It Comes at Night, Tusk.