Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) are a young American couple with a relationship on the brink of falling apart. But after a family tragedy keeps them together, a grieving Dani invites herself to join Christian and his friends on a trip to a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer festival in a remote Swedish village. The festival, however, is made up of increasingly disturbing rituals...
After the acclaim around 'Hereditary' and it being Ari Aster's debut feature-length effort, there's always the concern that the expectation on the follow-up will never live up. It's the difficult second album, after all. From the opening scene of 'Midsommar', it sets a familiar pace and tone. There's an unspeakable tragedy that roots the protagonist - the electric Florence Pugh - in the story, and gives her the forward momentum. But as the festivities and the horror begins to unfold, 'Midsommar' has less in common with 'Hereditary', or indeed 'The Wicker Man'.
Really, 'Midsommar' is its own, unique thing. To be clear, it's disturbing - but not especially scary, if that makes sense. What makes it so disturbing - but not scary - is that you never feel fear or dread when watching it. The singing, the unusual dancing, it's all so beautifully performed and the colours are so bright and pleasing to the eye, that you forget that it's masking some utterly fucked-up shit. Of course, when it's presented to you, there's no mistaking that 'Midsommar' is, in fact, a horror and the kind of horror that the likes of which Ari Aster will now inevitably become recognised for.
Like the work of Jordan Peele - whom Aster can count as a fan - 'Midsommar' invites you to pick apart its meaning, but doesn't necessarily need you to do so in order to enjoy it all. The richly detailed ceremonies that make up large chunks of the movie's second half are fascinating and bizarre, and the viscera that comes with them are an artful juxtaposition. That it all happens in on a clear summer's day makes it all the more twisted and weird.
What you might not be prepared for in 'Midsommar', however, is how riotously funny it is. There's more than a few moments in the movie's two-hour running time that will have you laughing from just how odd it all is. It's a great pressure-release valve, one that 'Hereditary' didn't necessarily have or need, but oddly makes sense here. Jack Reynor, Will Poulter and William Jackson Harper are fantastic as the vaguely annoying tourists to the village, but really, Florence Pugh excels as the mortally wounded Dani. The relationship between Pugh and Reynor feels laboured and worn, exactly like it should be where one person is clearly laden with problems and the other is too disinterested to care about them.
That Aster balances this emotional truth with some truly shocking moments is a testament to his skill as both a writer and director. All that said, 'Midsommar' doesn't have the same kind of alacrity in its pacing that 'Hereditary' has. It doesn't move from shock to shock in a sustained fashion the way that conventional horrors do. Instead, it's more like a drifting, lilting experience - not unlike the psychotropic substances that make up some of the most arresting visual moments of 'Midsommar'. You come up, you ride the wave of it, you come down and the brutal reality of it hits like you in the face.
'Midsommar' isn't for everyone, to be sure. Fans of conventional horror probably won't be able to grapple with the pacing, and those going in expecting another round of 'Hereditary' likely won't get the hit they're expecting. That said, 'Midsommar' is a compelling piece of folk horror and has some incredibly messed-up things to say about relationships, ritual, and the proud display of horrors dressed as religion.