Some films are like therapy. Ari Aster has a particular skill of injecting the horror of his films with profundity. The grief-laden debut feature of his, Hereditary, was far more than a tale of witchcraft and familial dread. His brilliant follow-up is far more than the pastoral cult nightmare that it might appear to be. Aster is pushing against the limitations that the horror genre is sometimes given in order to create a film here that will resonate on a much personal level. This is a break-up film like no other while also being a terrifying, often funny horror film.
Aster works again here with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski. In two films, Pogorzelski shows a striking amount of range. The creepy miniature house models and shadowy interiors of Hereditary are replaced with sunny, wide open and lush landscapes. What hasn't changed is the skillful and intensely disturbing imagery. And yet, the feeling of an ever-present sun here in Midsommar is just as claustrophobic as the interiors were in Hereditary.
Aster sets a relatively simple plot here but the film is dense with ideas and themes. White male privilege, the entitlement of traveling Americans and cultural insensitivity are explored with great clarity but the overarching theme of Midsommar is female empowerment. Dani, the fierce and fearless Florence Pugh, joins her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his college graduate students to a Swedish village, nestled in the middle of nowhere for a nine-day festival. Initially, the ceremonies seem appealing, incorporating hallucinogenics, flowers, and white linens. Dani is using the trip as a means to try and move past an extreme trauma in her life. Her bipolar sister commits a shocking act against her family in the film's stunning prologue. Christian hasn't exactly been the best boyfriend, almost breaking up with her before the tragedy hit. His friends, the foolish Mark (Will Poulter, academic seeking Josh (William Jackson Harper) and local native Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) see how bad Dani is for Christian. Dani doesn't have anyone to tell her how bad Christian truly is for her. Over the course of the nine-day ceremony, she learns this.
Midsommar would be nothing without the incredible performance by Pugh as Dani. Much like Toni Collette in Hereditary, Aster is able to get a jaw-dropping amount of unhinged emotions from his female lead. Her screams in the prologue are enough to scar your psyche. Reynor is very convincing as a subtly self-obsessed boyfriend.
As Midsommar hits its final act, the excess of gore, ritual and trippy visuals may be too much for some. The way the film shows a hallucinogenic trip is as accurate as I have ever seen in a movie. The gore can be extreme. The rituals are chilling. All of this would be in vain of cheap scares if the final shot wasn't so incredibly liberating. Stick with the film until the last shot. Dani becomes a stand-in for anyone who has ever excused an emotionally absent man in their life. The ending is a cathartic release and Midsommar leaves you pummeled and yet purged.