For a few weeks last summer, when any moviegoer closed their eyes they saw the maggot-infested severed head of Hereditary’s young protagonist. Writer/director Ari Aster’s sophomore follow-up to last summer’s break-out hit features all the grotesque body horror we now come to expect from an Aster film: slow knife cuts, graphically busted-in skulls, even an overhead shot of a mutilated bear and a man digging into its innards while instructing a group of young boys how to properly remove the animal’s intestines. Midsommar, like its predecessor, knows how to pick an image and linger.
This year we have swapped out witchy cults for Swedish folk ones, but Aster is still interested in exploring the ways in which we seek alternate families when our own has abandoned us or left us damaged. Dani Ardor (a versatile and complex Florence Pugh) has just experienced a nightmarish family tragedy that left her sister and both parents dead. Her boyfriend, aptly named Christian (Jack Raynor), who lives permanently with his foot half out the door, disingenuously invites her to tag along with his pompous group of grad school friends (Will Poulter, William Jack Harper) on a trip to the Swedish countryside to witness an ancient pagan midsommar festival. When Dani accepts the invite, no one seems thrilled except Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), the study-abroad friend who grew up in the village they are visiting. Cue horror intrigue—these pagans want more from their visitors than to just share their customs—and the slow escalation to the inevitable third act that blossoms in horrific opulence.
Where Hereditary was a dark edge-of-your-seat terror, Midsommar is a languid two-and-a-half hour stroll through the midnight sun. Here, Aster builds tension through framing (cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski instinctively knows what to leave out of focus or off-screen) and Bobby Krlic’s score melts you right into the drug-altered state of the characters. Not everyone who enjoyed Hereditary will enjoy Midsommar’s meandering build, but I would argue every scene earns its rightful place in a movie that skillfully panders its pleasure through the comic just as much as its horror. Yes, there will be blood, but there will also be laughs and maybe even a slightly uplifting ending, depending on your take.
In an interview with The Times, Aster describes Midsommar as his “break-up” film where he wanted the scope of the story to be as big and nauseatingly catastrophic as breakups invariably feel. Every interaction between Dani and Christian seems matched with an equally queasy and gut-wrenching act of horror. Yes these cultists are terrifying, but maybe, just maybe, they offer a more comforting alternative than Dani’s state-side life (with a quietly plugged metaphor of western religion in modern life).
Aster’s original runtime for Midsommar was 3 hours and 40 minutes, which inevitably must have included further fleshed-out plots to secondary characters whose horrors, either perpetrated or endured, are often off-screen in the version we see. And although I enjoyed the balance of what ultimately goes known and unknown during Dani’s time in endless daylight, it’s the makings of a good blockbuster to say I would have gleefully sat through another hour in the sun.