Hereditary, the debut feature from writer-director Ari Aster, ended in a place of grisly, ritual madness. Midsommar, his follow-up, takes that finale and extends it to feature length.
To be fair, Midsommar opens with a lengthy pre-title prologue that patiently establishes some psychological groundwork before the nuttiness kicks in. Dani (Florence Pugh, so good in 2017’s Lady Macbeth) finds herself in an unsteady place, having recently received some concerning emails from her sister, who suffers from bipolar disorder. Her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) offers comforting words, but his body language remains distant. Then tragedy occurs.
In the aftermath, Dani finds herself mentally adrift, in a post-traumatic fugue state. Christian, whose gestures have begun to feel even more hollow, tells her that he and some friends are planning a trip to Sweden, to attend a midsummer festival in the small village where one of those friends grew up. Dani decides to tag along—hoping for fresh scenery, and perhaps a chance to solidify things with Christian.
Once in Sweden, it doesn’t take long for us to realize that something is amiss (an earlier clue is the eerie, fairy tale-like illustrations in Dani’s apartment). The “village” is actually a commune, cut off from society at large, where everyone wears embroidered white frocks and follows daily, gendered-prescribed routines. When Dani and the others arrive, the commune is preparing for a week-long celebration that includes the crowning of a May Queen. Any guesses as to whether or not Dani will be involved?
Like Hereditary, Midsommar functions as an outlandish imagining of the effects of personal trauma, especially for someone who already struggles with an unsteady mind. Yet the psychology and the horror aren’t quite as holistically handled this time around. In Hereditary, those two elements performed a macabre dance, so that you were never quite sure (at least until that finale) if what was happening was a case of mental illness or supernatural interference. Once Midsommar sets its psychological table with that prologue, it pretty much becomes a two-hour enactment of strange rituals—fascinating in their oddness and the controlled way that Aster stages them, but also predictable in their increasing gruesomeness and terror. There are so many of these scenes, with the level of outrageousness continually ramping up, that the movie eventually begins to flirt with camp. (There’s a moment during a ritualized sex act that is hard to take any other way.)
Perhaps all of this would register as more than spectacle for spectacle’s sake if Midsommar had stronger main characters. Pugh capably captures Dani’s distress—both inside and out—but Aster doesn’t give her a showcase moment as he did for Toni Collette in Hereditary (I’m thinking of the group therapy confession scene). Reynor, meanwhile, is a blank slate as a screen presence; I understand that Christian is supposed to be fickle and aloof, but he still could have been interesting. As for Christian’s other friends—played by Will Poulter and William Jackson Harper—they’re barely sketched out as characters, leaving the actors very little to play.
As a formalist, however, Aster still has incredible command, even if some of his techniques are already predictable: the hard cuts as transitions; the way the camera slides through walls as it follows characters from one room to the next; the growing dissonance on the soundtrack. New to Midsommar are an eerie, overexposed lighting scheme to capture Sweden’s midnight sun and an undulating visual effect that surrounds the characters after they’ve imbibed hallucinogenic herbs or mushrooms. This trick especially comes into play during the film’s gonzo climax, so that one of the flowers on Dani’s headband pulses like a predatory creature.
There is another touch that’s familiar from Hereditary, and at this point might be considered Aster’s signature visual motif: a character howling in open-mouthed despair. In Midsommar, we first witness this in the prologue, as Dani wails in Christian’s arms, trying to process the terrible news she’s received. Later, at the commune, there are multiple moments in which a ritual elicits howling from the participant—and in those cases the watching villagers join in on the awful noise. At first they seem to be offering a weird sort of consolation, but by the film’s ghastly climax the moaning sounds like mockery. In those moments Midsommar is horrifying, to be sure, but without the psychological undergirding that Hereditary offered, it’s also a bit hollow.