Fun in the sun? Not so much. Ari Aster is back with “Midsommar,” a little over a year after his lauded feature directorial debut “Hereditary” came out last June.
“Midsommar,” released on July 5, has received a mostly positive from response from critics, earning the film an 83% certified fresh rating on the movie review site Rotten Tomatoes. However, the audience approval rating is currently in the low 60s.
Those familiar with the reception “Hereditary” received last summer will not be shocked by this disparity. Similarly, critics were impressed by the creeping, atmospheric horror film, while audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film a failing grade.
“Midsommar” follows Dani, played by relative newcomer Florence Pugh, a young woman plagued by a troubled family life and a passionless relationship. After tragedy strikes Dani’s family, she is invited on a trip to a festival in rural Sweden with her boyfriend and his friends, including Pele, who was raised in the commune where the festival is held.
As you've likely guessed by now, Dani is venturing into what is basically a cult, and the festival she and her friends attend will involve an abundance of violence. This might sound like a predictable plot, but Aster is a master at pulling off absurd, yet terrifying twists.
However, what might be so polarizing about both “Midsommar” and “Hereditary” is the type of terror Aster employs in his films. Instead of leaning upon jump scares and played-out paranormal effects, his films explore realistic human fears and emotions—death, grief, betrayal, jealousy, guilt—in an extreme situation.
While it’s easy to write “Midsommar” off as a film about a violent cult who terrorizes and manipulates a group of college students, a deeper dive reveals a much more complex and emotional plot. Though the cult is certainly scary, the shocking end scene shows that the real story is about Dani’s journey to find understanding and belonging following loss.
To say “Midsommer” makes audiences uncomfortable would be an understatement. Beyond the gratuitous nudity and hyper-realistic deaths, Pugh’s raw portrayal of grief is almost too real. Much like Toni Collette’s moving performance in “Hereditary,” Dani’s primal reaction to discovering she’s lost her sister and parents is sure to make audience members want to look away from the screen.
A reasonable critique of Aster’s most recent film is that it is somewhat hard to understand. A good bit of the cult’s rituals are performed in Swedish, and the religious works throughout are written in ancient runes.
However, it is likely that Aster meant for the audience to be confused to mirror the feelings of Dani and her group. The lack of understanding heightens the tension and fear, as the audience is just as much in the dark as to what the cult will subject its visitors to next.
The main characters, who are English-speaking Americans, often ask some of the very same questions that those watching are likely asking in their heads, only to receive elusive and unclear answers from the cult-members.
Additionally, drugs are frequently taken throughout the film. Christian and his friends are depicted as a heavy marijuana users, and upon arriving at the commune, cult members encourage the use of psychotropic mushrooms, and the following scenes often had a dream-like quality with CGI-distortions. These effects further the suspension of reality and make it difficult to trust what you’re seeing.
Even if the content of the film doesn’t sound appealing, it’s worth seeing simply for the visuals. Most unusually, the majority of the film’s action takes place in sunny daylight, distinguishing it from other horror films. Additionally, the set is beautiful, as the majority of the film was shot on location in Budapest, Hungary.
The characters walk through bright green fields with a stunning blue sky in the background. Cult members wear traditional embroidered clothing, and during the final ceremony, the young women don elaborate crowns of multi-colored flowers.
The juxtaposition of beautiful summer scenery and set pieces with grotesque violence is equally captivating and jarring.
Midsommar is a unique horror experience and a refreshing divergence from some recent films in the genre. Much like fellow horror newcomer Jordan Peele, Aster shows the potential to become an innovative industry mainstay.
However, if you’re still unsure of whether or not to watch “Midsommar,” you might benefit from seeing “Hereditary” first to find out if you enjoy Aster’s work. It’s available to watch for free with an Amazon Prime subscription.
“Midsommar” is currently playing in movie theaters across Athens.