REVIEW – ‘Midsommar’ is a twisted fairytale that’s ultimately a masterful portrait of grief

In 2018, a bold new visionary director entered the psychological horror landscape and knocked our damn socks off. With the divisive (it’s okay if you hated it) Hereditary, writer/director Ari Aster offered a hefty helping of nightmarish imagery, shocking moments, and a stunning performance by his leading lady, the Oscar-ignored (no, I’m not over it) Toni Collette.

Just one year later, Aster returns to do it all again with Midsommar; an equally unsettling and disturbing endurance test for audiences, cemented by one of the best female lead performances you will see this year. Likely to be equally as polarising amongst audiences, the film is an excruciating slow burn, with Aster pushing close to two-and-a-half-hours to unveil his latest macabre work. But when the horrors truly begin, it’s a glorious sight to behold.

After a devastating family tragedy, psychology graduate student Dani (a mesmerising Florence Pugh) is in the grips of crippling grief-induced emotional trauma. Overwhelmed by guilt, she turns to her emotionally distant longterm boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), an anthropology graduate student, who, under pressure from his dudebro friends, was considering breaking up with Dani and leaving her behind for a trip to rural Sweden.

But the tragedy leaves Christian with no choice but to obligatorily invite Dani to tag along, much to the chagrin of his fellow anthropology classmates and travel companions Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper). The group have been invited by Swedish grad student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to attend a midsummer festival at his hometown commune, known as the Hårga, in the remote village of Hälsingland.

Full of traditional dancing, singing, eating, and some, uh, rather unsettling rituals, the nine-day celebration only occurs once every 90 years and takes place during the summer solstice, meaning continuous daylight during the entire festival. At first, the residents of the Hårga seem overly warm and inviting, especially in their charming traditional folk outfits. But soon the façade begins to crack, and the midsummer festival’s true horrific intentions become apparent.

To say much more would spoil the wave of surprises found within Midsommar. The film consistently blurs the lines between psychological terror and startling horror, never quite fitting into one genre exclusively. Much was made about Hereditary wrongly being referred to as “scary,” and the same will be said of Aster’s sophomore effort. No, this is not a scary film filled with mindless jump scares to cause you to leap out of your seat. Instead, it’s a slow-moving descent into a deeply layered hellscape, loaded with subtextual meanings and evocative imagery.

The pacing of this film will likely frustrate many a viewer, given it’s a good hour before anything remotely horrific slaps you in the face. For those who love a more thrills-a-minute style psychological horror film, this one isn’t for you. Midsommar rightly takes its time in revealing its true nature, with the occasional visual or narrative hint that something isn’t quite right in the Hårga.

At first, the Swedish commune’s residents just appear to be a little quirky and eccentric, but Aster delights in slowly upping the unnerving peculiars of this festival before crossing the line into all-out madness. Is he pushing the boundaries of patience a touch too far this time? Absolutely, but never enough to prove truly fatal to the film’s overall success. It’s clear this is entirely his structure of choice, but a slightly faster pace could have turned this into a perfect masterpiece.

While the comparisons to his debut film are inevitable, the one stark different between Aster’s two films are the visuals. Darkness is a key component to most horror films, as was seen in Hereditary, where most of the terrifying action took place in the dead of night. But in a land where darkness never arrives, it’s simply not present here. This is a waking nightmare experienced in blinding daylight where sunny blue skies and flower-adorned hillsides hide a dark secret.

Aster demands you witness his creation in crystal clear quality, making his imagery far more unsettling and unshakable from your mind. And there are some deeply disturbing visuals within Midsommar that will long haunt your brain. Many may dismiss Aster’s imagery as nothing more than shock value gore, but everything here has been crafted with meticulous precision to fit his narrative, made all the more effective by the sublime cinematography of Pawel Pogorzelski and the immaculate production design of Henrik Svensson, both of which deserve attention come awards season.

Despite its horrors, Midsommar is a sumptuous treat for the eyes, with the rolling hills of Hungary providing a stunning natural backdrop for the faux Swedish summer festival. The scenery is downright beautiful, providing a calm and serene environment to fool both the characters and an audience into a false state of security before the nightmare really takes hold. It’s this relaxing ambience that makes the brutal violence and savage carnage that follows far more jarring. There’s no way to prepare for what’s to come, and that’s part of the giddy fun of a film of this nature.

In its simplest form, Midsommar is ultimately just a break-up movie. Dani begins the film as nothing more than a fragile doormat suffering the emotional manipulation of a boyfriend who has perfected the art of gaslighting to control his apparently “needy” girlfriend. Even in her hour of need, Dani feels guilt from reaching to her longterm partner for the support she so desperately needs. And entirely deserves. But the narrative slowly allows Dani to come into her own empowering confidence, as she travels the delicious path of vengeance and independence the commune begins to provide.

But at its true heart, Midsommar is a careful and insightful introspection of grief, trauma, and PTSD. Dani’s grief over her family tragedy envelopes her every waking moment. The inescapable and crippling sense of sorrow causes her to experience panic attacks, bouts of endless crying, and often robotically carrying out her daily life as if stuck in a neverending nightmare. At times, Dani’s grief-stricken wails even form part of the film’s score, encompassing the film with her every emotion in magnificent fashion.

But the film wisely portrays grief as a necessary emotion we all must deal with at some point in our lives. When we accept the pain, it allows us the opportunity to transform into something even more powerful. Acceptance is the only path to recovery, yet it’s not a road we can travel alone. And therein lies the true message of Midsommar. Hidden beneath all the macabre gore and shocking spectacle, there is a deeply important lesson of the importance of family (in any form) and the communal embrace of love and shared pain they provide us. That is what Dani is lacking in her life…until now.

None of the film’s thematic intentions would be achieved without a powerful leading performance to steer this ship. In Pugh, Aster has uncovered a true star who has already shown her impressive capabilities in films like Lady Macbeth and Fighting with My Family. In a transformative performance, Pugh absolutely shines, taking Dani from crippled wallflower to confident dynamo with deft skill. She’s heartbreakingly devastating in Dani’s moments of pain, but she’s even more majestic in the film’s final act where her true talents are mined by Aster with remarkable results. Collette couldn’t nab an Oscar nom for Hereditary, but perhaps Pugh will have more luck this year.

A twisted fairytale that’s ultimately a masterful portrait of grief, Midsommar is both deeply disturbing and strangely exhilarating. With sardonically dark moments of warped black humour, the film has the power to both shake your nerves and enlighten you with its deeper intentions. Its slow-burn style may be too frustrating for some, but the payoff is ultimately worth the effort.

A weird and wonderful beast of many layers, Midsommar is a film that demands repeat viewings, so be prepared to take this psychedelic trip more than once. You won’t shake this film from your mind anytime soon, and therein lies its breathless power. And be prepared to never look at flowers, bears, or Sweden, in general, the same way ever again. You have been warned.

Distributor: Roadshow
Cast: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter, Archie Madekwe, Ellora Torchia
Director: Ari Aster
Producers: Patrik Andersson, Lars Knudsen
Screenplay: Ari Aster
Cinematography: Pawel Pogorzelski
Music: The Haxan Cloak
Production Design: Henrik Svensson
Editing: Lucian Johnston
Running Time: 146 minutes
Release Date: 8th August 2019 (Australia)