Youth is called the spring of life. Which is to say everything is in bloom when you’re young. But what is it to be youthful? Increasingly modern society keeps moving the goalpost of “young adulthood,” be it from actual adolescence to college, or now post-grad age to thirtysomethings stating they’re “adulting.” This is refreshingly not the case for the friendly Swedish commune in Midsommar though. Instead, the fair-haired and blue-eyed denizens of Ari Aster’s latest genre-bending perversion are fair to a fault. They make no illusions when they reveal their religion considers each person’s lifecycle as entering summer by the age of 18 and autumn by 36. And winter? Let’s just say it gets cold real fast.
As a community founded on an empathy as endless as their summer sun, these true-believers keep both feet firmly planted in the old ways, lacking a modern sense of perpetual springtime or perpetual self-interest. And during the height of their midsommar solstice, they’ll smother you in kindness. Yet what’s most unnerving about this oversaturated, leafy green hell is that if you spend enough time with them, their traditions are more than inviting to contemporary eyes; they’re intoxicating.
This is the world that Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) enters with her indecisive boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) at the height of their own lifecycles’ summer—not that they’d admit it. The definition of a bad romance, the pair should’ve broken up long before the movie begins, but Christian is too callow to stop vacillating with his grad school friends to get out of a relationship he doesn’t want. Then tragedy strikes. After Dani experiences a nightmarish horror in the midst of actual winter, and in a cold open that feels akin to the terrors of Aster’s first film, Hereditary, we cut to six months later and this meager love story has dragged on with Christian trying to be supportive to a grieving woman he is low-key keeping at arm’s length and far from a reliable shoulder.
Hence how Dani ends up in Sweden with him. Discovering two weeks before the flight that Christian plans to spend the summer with his friends in Northern Europe, beginning by visiting Swedish buddy Pelle’s childhood home, Dani is forced to essentially grovel in order to tag along, just as she is forced to struggle for any semblance of sincere compassion. She might be on a plane with Christian, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), Josh (William Jackson Harper), and Mark (Will Poulter), but she’s barely a member of her own tribe when these millennial Americans discover a much more ancient one.
Far north, and well beyond civilization or the sun’s ability to set, Dani is immersed in an idyllic village of pastoral serenity, quaint folk dances, and psychedelic hallucinogens to, you know, remove inhibitions and make outsiders more susceptible to… activities.
As Aster’s A24 follow-up to the horror movie of 2018, Hereditary, there will be much interest in comparing Midsommar to that devilish chiller. However, this is by design a much more patient and ambiguous experience. Welcoming comparisons after a press screening to Lars von Trier’s tragedies, Aster freely admits this movie was inspired by an apparently brutal breakup. It shows since even though the film wears its influences from cult horror classic The Wicker Man (the 1973 version) on its sleeve, Midsommar is still somehow more abstractly internalized than Hereditary’s parable about repressed guilt. The new movie’s devastating opening sequence repeats many of the same jarring sound design and smash cut tactics of that earlier movie. However, Aster intentionally fades familiarity away for a blindingly beautiful sunny side production as soon as the opening credits wash away with the snow.
Intentionally saturating the colors of the picturesque village Dani and Christian find themselves in to kaleidoscopic levels, Aster’s vision is shadowless. Thus it is also pitiless since there’s nowhere to hide in this world, even as the more sinister elements of the villagers’ fictional religion of Hårga are introduced. The first shot of their commune might be a bit on-the-nose, with the camera literally placed upside down as the Americans pass through the proverbial looking glass, but it’s also apt for these well-intentioned tourists.
All of the central characters, even Poulter’s role as the obnoxious yankee (and Christian’s most toxic BFF), have so exoticized the idea of provincial foreigners and their arcane customs that they’ve come prepared to inundate themselves from the realities they’re facing. Harper’s Josh is the most open-minded, arriving with the desire to write a thesis about their customs, but Christian and Dani follow suit as they ingest all offerings at face value, eagerly slipping under the downsides of cool intellect. As they give themselves to an acceptance of pagan rituals that shed layers of innocence, little by little, audiences are forced to also succumb to an antiquated mindset where right and wrong, justice and cruelty, become much more personalized concepts.
In this setting, the horror is living with their characters’ own interpersonal failures. With the exception of Blomgren’s beguiling sympathy for all his friends, including Dani, none of the remaining visitors are immediately likable. With loaded monikers like “Ardor” and “Christian,” the main couple struggles to live up to their namesakes, although for Dani it is due to repressed emotional trauma. Already having a big year after appearing in Fighting with My Family, and with Greta Gerwig’s Little Women on the horizon, Midsommar should nonetheless be Florence Pugh’s true breakout calling card. A bundle of frayed nerves and exposed torment, her brittle energy is phenomenal—the personification of a breakup’s fallout that’s never allowed to heal.
This is in large part due to Christian’s unavoidable cowardice, which is the exact inverse of the egalitarian values worshipped by the village he finds himself in. Yet Reynor brings a stalwart authenticity to a man who constantly thinks about doing the right thing, even as that ideal becomes blurred by all the candy colored flowers popping around him in vivid loveliness.
In this setting, modern Christian values about the pursuit of happiness are put to an ancient test that reaches an enormous, cacophonic release in its gruesome third act. Getting there, however, will be a test for some moviegoers if they come in expecting a traditional horror movie, or even a slow-burning mystery of dread like Hereditary. As perverse and sickening as the final day of festivities ultimately prove, none of them are particularly shocking or unexpected. Going where you’ll likely expect this type of story to go, complete with “painted scripture” murals throughout the film foreshadowing most of the big events, Midsommar overstretches its breakup metaphor to 140 minutes. That pensiveness will try the patience of some, but I suspect this is the point.
Like a ritualistic horror movie about cults, an ugly breakup lacks any surprise by the time it reaches the inevitable snapping point. Yet the bloodbath that follows can be a strangely comforting abhorrence to behold.
Midsommar opens on July 3.