If Ari Aster’s 2018 Hereditary proposed that there is absolute evil in the world, his 2019 followup Midsommar says that it’s been there all along. It’s a delirious, sun-soaked journey into catharsis from an existence steeped in malice in all its forms. But it’s done through a disorienting, demented examination of standing alongside and apart from human nature.
(Spoiler-ish warning. If you are even remotely interested in watching Midsommar, just go ahead and do it. The more you know about it, the more of a disservice you’re doing yourself. The lack of foreknowledge is part of the experience Aster has cultivated with this film.)
In this case, we follow the story of Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) as she travels with her boyfriend Christian Hughes (Jack Reynor) and his roommates during their collective college summer break. Their relationship has been on the rocks due to Dani’s absolute and ardent belief that Christian is only tolerating her rather than desiring her and was at a breaking point until her sister engages in a murder-suicide with her parents, which more or less guilts Christian into staying with her.
It is thoroughly and unequivocally a terrible situation made worse by an awful decision to stick it out. And not a single one of Christian’s friends seem to like her either, each one exuding as much selfish motivation as possible in as short a time as possible. As if there was a prize to whoever could be most efficient in presenting their case for being the biggest jackass. But with the insistence of Swedish exchange student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), they all decide to visit his exceedingly remote village for their midsummer celebration that only occurs once every 90 years.
One of the great successes of this story is that it is even happening. Aster originally wrote it as a more straightforward slasher flick, but after a breakup, he rewrote it to delve into his own experiences. And it aligns delectably well with the otherworldly, inscrutable life of living in a small community that sees the sun 20 hours a day. As your circadian rhythms evaporate in the strident rays, your body detaches from your mind and your mind removes itself from reality. And what better way to describe the experience of going through a breakup than that.
But it’s also framed in this odd community that Pelle brings them to. At first brush, it’s very cult-like. Everyone is singing and dancing in unabashedly white attire, there’s no electricity, and every building is wooden and ominous. But the eeriest thing about them is their dogmatic dedication to adhering to their esoteric beliefs, all of which have been preserved in paintings and murals across the walls of their village.
As the gang endures this rapid immersion into a culture completely devoid of relatable cultural landmarks for them, they see how their beliefs exemplify the grand psychological shortcomings of human nature. Beginnings are soft and easy onramps, but endings are harsh and indecipherable, so they turn to their history. They imbue an inherently meaningless existence with completely manufactured meaning. Life and death, love and hate, sacrifice and acceptance all folded back into harvests and fertility and relationships.
It’s a blissful sort of ignorance that is at once a fantasy and a nightmare to someone in a situation such as Dani’s. It contrasts so sharply with every feeling she has now (i.e., nothing matters anymore) with every feeling she used to have (i.e., things happen for a reason). This terrifying limbo falls between either side and right into nothing, which is the meat of the horror that the film explores. We don’t understand—no matter how hard we try—and never will.
There’s an element of natural versus artificial to this dissection. Pelle’s commune is all about the natural cycles: time and seasons and aging and birth and death. But Dani is experiencing a crisis of nearly fabricated origin. Her family’s deaths were unnecessary. Her love life is not requisite for living. But death is inevitable. Love is a part of life. Is this a schism that she can recover? Or is this where all of us end up regardless.
It all culminates in several points of intense emotional collision, but the peak is becoming perhaps Aster’s calling card. Where the climax is a breathless, protracted, and excruciating ride to the bottom of a gnarled, violent hill. The pitch-perfect characterizations of the pedantic cultural tourist Josh (William Jackson Harper); the dirtbag dipshit who vapes and leers at women Mark (Will Poulter); and the opportunistic coward boyfriend Christian all dovetail into the single most cathartic moments in film of this year. Yes, it’s graphic and disturbing and maniacal, but it is, most of all, vital.
It’s hard to watch. Not just the last act but the entire film. You constantly want to avert your eyes but you can’t. Pugh’s performance is raw and primal in a way that is uncomfortably unfettered. It feels like touching a live, desperate wire. It visually is arresting and debilitating. It judges and diminishes the way humans try to live and interpret their lives, even if you try to not do either. It is, while far from the perfectly tuned viewing of Hereditary, truly one of the grimmest and most affecting movies you’ll see all year.
Final score: 8 out of 10