The hottest name in horror right now is Ari Aster. He’s got it all: family trauma, gore, cults, piano wire, and, now, flower crowns. When Hereditary hit theatres last summer, Aster was lauded as one of the best up-and-coming horror filmmakers with his story about trauma, grief, and covens. Well he’s back at it again with trauma and grief, but this time he’s tackling those themes within a Swedish pagan commune. His newest film, Midsommar, pulls even more aggressive emotional punches and splatters the screens with shocking moments of gore.
Midsommar addresses similar themes of grief, trauma, isolation, and relationships seen in Hereditary, but this time it is through the lens of young couple Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor). Dani and Christian have been together for four years but those four years haven’t necessarily been happy. Each of their conversations is so full of passive aggressive comments and halfhearted apologies that you’re just ready for someone to snap. But then, Dani suffers a horrific family tragedy. She loses her entire family and, understandably, sinks into a deep depression. Christian feels obligated to stay with Dani, even if he has the emotional intelligence of a potato sack and has no clue how to comfort his grieving girlfriend.
In a half-hearted attempt to backtrack on a mistake, Christian invites Dani along on his boys’ trip to Sweden. She joins him and his friends, Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), to Pelle’s hometown for a glorious Midsommar celebration that happens every 90 years. The group get ready for a trip full of mushrooms, beers, chicks, and fun. They get some of those things, sure, but fun is not one of them. As the commune’s intentions are revealed, the friend group begins to fall apart. The resentment between Dani and Christian builds, academic rivalries develop, and everyone just really wants to go home. But there’s no escaping this horrific oasis, not until the ceremony is complete.
Aster is a master at picking at emotional wounds until they ooze, fester, and infect the brain. He was able to somehow target my specific anxieties and worst fears with Midsommar, which made it an ungodly uncomfortable experience. As Dani paces around her apartment on the phone with her friend, worrying if she’s pushing her boyfriend away due to emotional baggage, tears crept into my eyes. As a woman with her fair share of baggage and several recent mental health diagnoses, I am in constant fear of overloading my partner and scaring him away. Dani tries to navigate this anxiety throughout the film by putting her own feelings aside and ignoring what she needs to heal just to make Christian comfortable. But that leads to her isolating herself and feeling incredibly alone in her time of need. Again, this is a fear of mine: how do I balance my own needs and the needs of others? How can I learn to take care of myself and ask for support? Yes, that’s what therapy is for, I know, but Midsommar puts these anxieties and scenarios on very prominent display.
Pugh is absolutely stunning as the grieving Dani. Her performance chilled me to the bone as she fluctuates between trying to hide her grief through weak smiles and all out wailing. She captures Dani’s agony with such precision, moving through gut-wrenching grief to steely anger to concealed panic attack. Pugh goes on a journey with Dani, one full of death, Ativan, and mushroom-induced trips. She is a woman who needs a little empathy, but can’t find any among the emotionally-distant and immature men that surround her.
While it is a painfully relatable story, it at times feels like emotional torture porn, something that Aster seems to have mastered. He packs in as much as trauma as humanly possible into one film that there is never a moment to breathe. While Midsommar reminds us of the traumas that we all deal with and must face on a daily basis, it at times feels exploitative to generate the strongest reaction possible. Aster’s stories go to their most extreme point to showcase the horrors of humanity, but at the same time, that doesn’t always feel like his point. It isn’t just about telling an amazing story or delving into the psyche of his characters; it’s about shock value and disturbing audiences.
The shock value comes mostly from Aster’s total lack of subtlety, which is actually a compliment. He is able to show the audience exactly what is about to happen and still generate shock and disgust. Yes, we know that woman is about to jump off a cliff. But we don’t know how much is going to be shown on camera (warning: it’s a lot). This lack of subtlety leads to a unique type of dread, one where you know precisely what is going to happen, but you don’t know when or how terrible it will truly be. Again, Aster drops so many hints through illustrations on walls and small bits of dialogue that every action feels inevitable; none of these characters, at least the American ones, have any control over their fates.
Yet in this darkness are astonishing moments of humor. Poulter’s vape-ripping douchebag of a character in particular serves as comedic relief, muttering snarky one liners that exemplify the boorish nature of American tourists. But comedy is not just found in sarcastic jokes. It is found within rituals, especially during perhaps the most unusual and uncomfortable sex scene ever filmed. I won’t spoil the details, but Reynor’s stoned look of disbelief and confusion during the scene makes it both hilarious and repulsive. Aster is able to mix horror and comedy into a strange and intoxicating potion that makes you feel like everything might just end up OK.
Midsommar will split audiences even more than Hereditary. As I’ve tried to wade through the quagmire of the emotional baggage I brought to this film, I’ve realized that few movies have made me react like this. Few movies have me gasping for air and feeling nauseous. Few movies have me calling my partner as I choke back tears after a screening. Perhaps I’m a masochist for finding something positive in such an emotional reaction, but there is no doubting Aster’s ability to truly dive into the darkest corners of the mind and bringing those thoughts to the screen. In this case, those thoughts are bathed in never-ending sunshine, crowned with flowers, fed hallucinogens, and won’t stop screaming. Raise a glass, toast the solstice, and drink deeply to the profoundly disturbing horrors of Ari Aster’s Midsommar.