Hereditary felt like a revelation when it came out last year partly because it was a real movie, with real actors, and real depth and complexity, which happened to be a horror film. As a massive fan of the horror genre, I can tell you that films like that don’t come along all that often. Other films I can think of in that category in recent memory are Let the Right One In, Mandy, The Witch and Get Out. All of which you should watch immediately if you haven’t already. Hereditary was also something of a crossover hit and was talked about and seen by way more people than a horror film usually would be, probably because of the presence of – and incredible performance by – Toni Collette.
The thing about Hereditary is that the most horrifying parts of the film have nothing to do with the supernatural. In a way it almost feels like two movies. The most visceral and memorable moments of the film are rooted in things that are very much of this earth: grief, trauma, blame, guilt, mental illness. Themes that are familiar and awful parts of the human experience. Filmmaker Ari Aster has an incredible gift for conveying the emotion of sheer sickening dread that I’ve rarely seen done so well. Maybe the only other film I can think of that gave me that feeling of a full-body blow is David Fincher’s Se7en from back in 1995. Or the Tim Roth’s film The War Zone, and some films by Lars Von Trier. For me, the satanic and creepy elements of Hereditary even felt a little weak in comparison.
If you go back to Ari Aster’s first film, the 30-minute The Strange Thing About the Johnsons – which you can find online – you see the product of an incredibly accomplished first-time filmmaker and someone who is not afraid to face the unfaceable. Straight in the face. You also see a film that is entirely dedicated to familial horror, with no element of the satanic or the supernatural. It kind of confirms my suspicion that what Aster is truly peerless at is articulating the unspeakable domestic dread that hides in plain sight.
And so onto Midsommar, which impressively feels unmistakably like an Ari Aster work even though it is only his second feature.
And what a film it is.
Like Hereditary, this is a film of two films. On one hand it is a tale of unsuspecting young folk who find themselves caught up in a seriously weird (and obviously deadly) cult situation in Sweden. Since we’re talking about a remote and idyllic rural setting, involving quirky local rituals and customs, there are clear parallels to 1973 British horror masterpiece The Wicker Man that have been predictably mentioned in most reviews. And fair enough; folk horror is a fairly niche genre after all.
However, this is definitely not a mere homage. Midsommar is truly its own thing, and it’s breathtaking. The bizarre cult world that Aster creates is incredibly original and unpredictable, and visually just stunning. The world of the nice-creepy Hårga people is so well developed and detailed, down to their eating habits and communication methods, their clothing and art. It’s fascinating. So much of the impact of this film comes from the contrast between the full color saturation of the almost 24-hour Swedish summer sun and the beautiful bodies in it, with the increasingly demented things that are taking place.
The other story, the part which Aster himself describes as a ‘breakup film’, is one that explores the ugly world of abuse and emotional neglect in a relationship. It is rare to see this kind of couple interaction on screen – the small but essential moments, the things that are said that change everything forever. Probably not since Blue Valentine have I seen a depiction of the disintegration of a toxic relationship with such subtlety and relatability. Florence Pugh is extraordinary as Dani, a young woman who is consumed by grief but heroically keeping it together, mostly for the benefit of her sack-of-shit boyfriend. Said boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is an irredeemable character; a selfish, aloof, and slimy gaslighter who employs classic abusive techniques to Dani and is a terrible friend. If you’ve been subject to this kind of person, you can recognise it instantly and it’s sickening. This is what I mean by domestic horror. It’s almost worse than any demon you could dream up, coz this shit is real. It’s also made for some pretty funny editorial commentary.
The thing about Midsommar is that it even though it deals with a fairly outlandish premise, the world within it feels quite possible. Unlike many horror movies where characters can feel like props set up to die in fantastical ways, the dialogue here is fresh, natural, and often funny.
For me the real gut-punching, jaw-dropping, Gwyneth Paltrow’s-head-in-a-box type scene happens at the start of the film – before the opening credits even. There is a particular moment, as the camera pans out on a medical services team attending an unimaginably horrible scene, soundtracked by a sharp violin note ringing out, where my hairs literally stood on end. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that in a movie. Since I tend to seek out art that makes me feel something, having an actual physical reaction is definitely a win. The only only time that has happened to me before was when I watched The Silence of the Lambs as a teenager, and during the scene where Hannibal bites the face of the prison guard I remember feeling literally nauseous. It’s pretty gross.
There has been some talk online of people being unsatisfied with the ending of Midsommar, but I for one felt it was wrapped up far more satisfyingly than Hereditary was. This Ari Aster guy is a master and you better believe it.
So if feeling disgusted, creeped out and potentially sickened is how you get your kicks, my advice is don’t walk but RUN to see Midsommar on the big screen.