Review: Midsommar

A truly unnerving and bizarre horror, Midsommar didn’t quite meet my high expectations, but nevertheless is powerfully unsettling and weird from the director and writer of Hereditary.

Dani (Florence Pugh) experiences a shocking tragedy, and boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) – ignoring his friends’ recommendation that he dump her – instead invites her to Sweden, where the group of five are set to visit the commune where their friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) grew up. As Dani wrestles with grief and acceptance, the commune’s  strange atmosphere and its members’ offbeat behaviour begins to escalate.

Hereditary was a horror that felt truly new, focused on characters, slow burning tension and sporadic explosions of genuinely shocking violence. Director and writer Ari Aster clearly has a vivid, lurid filmic imagination, and a great handle on writing characters suffering anguish, grief and sorrow – before plunging them into insane scenarios.

Midsommar is of a piece with Hereditary in eschewing standard, predictable horror tropes and hammers you with that same gnawing, expanding feeling that something’s not right, before eruptions of violent, shocking horror that astound. It’s mostly because of the way Aster builds to and then stages these events, but strong character work here is focused more on his lead, rather than the other characters.

In essence, it’s an uncomfortably uncompromising look at both grief and the breakdown of a relationship, Aster apparently stating it was his response to a break up! If this arises from a relationship break up, god knows what he could create if he’d experienced stronger trauma.

What I enjoyed is that from the moment go, everything technical is working towards that growing sense of danger, and yet in choosing to stage a horror movie almost completely in a beautiful, sunlit field, Aster subverts the genre’s standard use of the frightening dark and yet loses none of the horror.

His considered direction drags scenes out to unbearable crescendos, partnered with an almost Instagram-filter, soft pastel colour style cinematography from Pawel Pogorzelski, making the commune a very visually attractive place to be – and thus adding to the horror when things start getting odd.

Filmed in Hungary (not Sweden), intelligent exterior set design means nothing feels staged once we’re there, and the spartan, wooden buildings dotted across the large open space in essence take the filmic feeling away. It feels more real, and that only makes the juxtaposition of lovely setting and bizarre events work better in tandem.

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If I had any criticisms of Aster’s direction and writing, it’s that the film has a brilliantly excruciating crawl towards a shocking turning point, but from there on I was expecting an escalation that never came, and while other high points of weirdness raise the temperature, a more conventional ending was disappointing. Also, Dani is the understandable focus but at the expense of other characters that could have been more explored.

It should go without saying that an 18 rated horror (not as regular as you’d think!) is going to have violence befitting the certificate, and this is largely thanks to one incredible scene that felt like a combination of a number in Hereditary. Aster knows that when violence happens it needs to be shocking and gruesome, and has a habit of leaving the camera to linger – just to rub it in a little more for the squeamish.

Spare editing by Lucian Johnston takes long, sweeping (and deliberately overlong) takes and pairs them with slow camera moves and pans, giving everything an unmistakably dreamlike, strained feel. It’s also worth mentioning the sound design, a bassy undercurrent later joined by offbeat atonal folk singing and humming. What score there is, by The Haxan Cloak, is both folk infused and unerringly minimal.

Pugh’s lead performance is incredibly raw, Dani a maelstrom of grief, confusion and emotion as she tries to confront her feelings. It’s no surprise she’s tipped as one of the best in the new wave of British actors, with this film probably not half as effectively affecting without her. It can come across as over the top, but her performance is on a par with Toni Colette’s in Hereditary in that it dominates and has to do so.

Reynor’s Christian is – on the face of it – the standard douchebag boyfriend, but the Irish actor is surprisingly good. Unsympathetic (mostly) from the get go, we end up gripped by what might and does happen to him and Dani, because Reynor’s expressiveness highlights the moral hesitation Christian feels over his often questionable choices.

Will Poulter’s Mark is the worst kind of toxic, abrasive bloke, fitting the trope of the idiot, smarmy American tourist. However, once at the commune he stands out as grimly comic relief and a tension leveller – my criticism is he disappears for stretches when that macho, whiny bullshit would maintain a balance in tone.

William Jackson Harper (Chidi from The Good Place) takes that character’s nerdiness and keenness into this more ruthless, driven, craven nerd; Josh writing a doctorate about communes and folk societies, and surprisingly accepting of what the group begins to witness. Vilhelm Blomgren’s overly positive – almost spaced out – Pelle is the group’s way into the commune, the actor’s chilled, positive vibe developing along the film’s course.

A large supporting cast of (mostly) Swedish actors and actresses plays the members of the commune, and while only a few stand out or speak, collectively they amuse, surprise, disgust or horrify. There’s nothing more bizarre than a group of otherwise normal people behaving strangely – but what’s more creepy is their poise, controlled demeanours or swoops into emotion, accentuating that weird feeling.

This is definitely not a conventional horror and is perhaps even less accessible than Hereditary. While it didn’t sustain its promise for me, and character work isn’t as strong as that film, it benefits from a particularly controlled and unnerving atmosphere, which Aster deftly maintains and deepens before everything starts to get odd. It’s an experience!

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