Before the release of Ari Aster’s Midsommar, a number of those who were interested in the film asked if the film had any resemblance to either version of The Wicker Man, which I have not seen. (I aim to see both versions in the near future.) Without having a frame of reference to the aforementioned classic, I couldn’t say “yay” or “nay.” The director outlined his influences, but none of them referenced The Wicker Man.
So now I’m curious why filmgoers would think that a surreal, horror film that doesn’t shirk away from the stunning violence that the film depicts is similar to a 40-year-old film. Aster does such an excellent job of creating an idyllic setting from which this horror springs that, for those who choose to follow his lead, Aster numbs the sensation of the festival around which he’s constructed his story.
Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor are the primary reasons why it is so easy to be lulled into the Swedish village where a summer solstice festival is held. Pugh plays Dani, someone who suffers from paranoia and anxiety. We can viscerally feel the horror of her own grief following a tragedy. Her boyfriend, Christian (Reynor) wants to support her, but his friends know that their relationship is headed for disaster; he’s still willing to look the other way, but we also know he’s not too happy about it either.
I liked the way Aster builds the disintegrating relationship into a group setting early in the film as a defining theme. We know that Dani and Christian’s relationship is on the rocks and when the opportunity to join Christian, Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) on a trip to Sweden, Dani, tags along.
Our introduction to the village and the people is a lush hillside encampment. The laid-back villagers welcome us into their inner circle, but we Americans are still pent up from the journey and for Dani, she’s still on edge from her own trauma. In this early scene, I felt like Dani did, reluctantly partaking in a release, but finding a good deal of solace in having done so.
Pugh does an amazing job of drawing us into Dani’s idiosyncrasies as her grief-stricken mind plays tricks on us. Reynor’s terror-stricken face can’t replace the fact that he’s not as honest as he seems. Aster who is a very visually oriented director relies on Pawel Pogorzelski’s exceptional eyes to create a bright, almost washed out look. So much so, that what we see on the screen looks surreal.
Aster allows us time to get acclimated as we learn about the customs associated with the village and with the festival and in doing so, we see a change in Dani’s outlook on life as she begins to assimilate into the culture. Will Poulter’s Mark might seem like a doofus who is there for comic relief, but he is a reminder that we are guests and that we are expected to respect other’s cultures and rituals. Pelle is really a guide for the entire group, but the character is far more in tune with Dani than we realize; Pugh and Blomgren’s performances are full of subtleties that just add those small touches which strengthens Aster’s narrative.
Josh is the second marker in respect for one’s cultures, customs and practices. What’s interesting about his character is that as a grad student prepping his thesis, he is the impetus for the trip, so you would expect him to be on his best behavior, but his interests lie elsewhere and it leads to some very dynamic and interpersonal conflicts with Christian.
As with Hereditary, Lucian Johnston’s editing is a godsend in this regard because his timing to Aster’s material is right on point. He knows how to build to the right crescendos so that the horror lingers, but at the same time, the darker humor and context has a chance to creep its way into your subconscious.
No better moment in the film is thusly captured than in the juxtaposition of Dani’s involvement in a ceremonial game in which the last woman standing becomes a queen along with the ritualistic mating involving Christian. The guttural release of both characters along with the technical achievements in Aster’s narrative, Johnston’s editing and Pogorzelski’s cinematography fire on all cylinders.
Finally, the details with which Aster integrates our characters in to the customs and the unexpected, make for an exquisite horror and on its surface, that’s what Midsommar is. More than that, Midsommar is full of nuanced contexts of characters, their situations and their journeys, specifically Dani’s, that there is a macabre sense of humor needed to unravel the rest of the story.
And that’s the beauty in the horror that is Misdommar.
Now playing in theaters, Midsommar is rated R.
All photos courtesy of A24.