For the second time in two years, director Ari Aster has used the horror genre as a vehicle to give voice to human anguish. Last year's “Hereditary,” his critically acclaimed debut, burrowed into the darkness of mental illness, externalizing its heroine's overwhelming anguish and guilt through metaphors of the supernatural; it's action unfolding, appropriately, within the shadows of a dimly lit home.
“Midsommar,” both companion and counterpoint to “Hereditary,” sets its exploration of loss and pain against the wide-open spaces of the Swedish countryside and the relentless sunlight of the summer solstice. If not as concise as its tightly wound predecessor, “Midsommar” adheres more satisfyingly to its heroine's emotional journey.
The central plot is familiar: American college students accompany a Swedish grad school friend to his people's secluded village to witness a rite performed just once every 90 years, but soon realize that their hosts may not be as innocuous as they appear. This plot, however, doesn't emerge for a good half hour. As with “Hereditary,” Aster uses those opening 30 minutes to introduce what this long strange trip is really all about: a dysfunctional relationship and the woman trapped within it.
Dani (Florence Pugh) is struggling to maintain a relationship with anthropologist boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) while worrying about her bipolar sister. A single phone call tells us everything we need to know about them. The static camera stays close on Dani's face as she struggles to suppress tears while Christian grudgingly goes through the motions of listening. He may not be evil, but he's a bad boyfriend, selfishly encouraging Dani to accept his emotional detachment and to blame herself as “too needy.” Christian's friends, meanwhile, urge him to get on with what seems an inevitable breakup.
When horrific tragedy strikes, however, their co-dependent die is cast, and Dani gets a reluctant invitation to come along to Sweden with Christian and his bros: Swedish host Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), fellow anthropologist Josh (“The Good Place”’s William Jackson Harper), and perennial horndog/Ugly American cliché Mark (Will Poulter).
The approach to Halsingland, home of Pelle's people the Hårga, feels like a trip through the looking glass, or the wardrobe. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski's camera corkscrews upside down as it follows the visitors down a tree-lined road, eventually emerging with them through a huge sunburst-shaped portal into a startlingly bright and colorful world. Production designer Henrik Svensson has created a pastoral compound that is bucolic yet naggingly off-kilter. The people are friendly to a cult-like fault—all smiles and handshakes, flowing white gowns, flower crowns and … large hand-hewn wooden mallets? Strange geometric structures—a large yellow pyramid, dark featureless bulkheads—loom among the humble huts and barns.
On top of this, the guests are plied with psilocybin mushrooms and suspicious flower teas, the effects of which are portrayed through subtle distortions of images. Throughout one scene, a flower in Dani's head wreath pulses hypnotically; at other times, objects on the dinner tables appear to shimmer and shift. Underlining these experiences is Bobby Krlic’s underlying score of writhing, wailing strings.
While the Hårga's rituals become increasingly peculiar, even threatening, the visitors' responses remain the same—a tendency toward rationalization. More than once, a member of the American group admonishes the others that “it's cultural.”
When violence finally occurs, it is in brutal and blunt and in broad daylight. Unlike most current horror films, Aster presents these horrors not as surprises, but as inevitabilities. Sharp-eyed viewers will have spotted harbingers in the illustrations that cover the walls of the visitors' overnight shelter. The Hårga's most unnerving secret, it turns out, is not the violence of their rituals, but the acceptance with which they embrace both the beautiful and the horrific.
As her fellow travelers become increasingly panicked, fragile Dani seems to find her bearings. And it is Pugh's ferociously raw performance, moving from panic to ecstasy, that provides the core of this journey, spiraling deliriously toward a terrifying peak that is as troubling for its joyousness as for its perverse violence.
Skeptical viewers will inevitably ask, “Why didn't they just get the hell out?” After all, the writing was literally on the wall all along. Exactly the question you might ask about a friend who stays in a bad relationship.