What the Folk?
Having blasted his way onto the scene with last year’s Hereditary, director Ari Aster returns with an effective effort in the not-often-seen-these-days genre of folk horror. A horror film shot largely in broad daylight to boot. And pulls it off beautifully, for Midsommar is an intense, insightful and impressively out-there achievement. Think The Wicker Man by way of Annihilation. No, think Kubrickian folk horror.
After suffering a terrible family tragedy, Dani (Florence Pugh) accompanies boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and pals on a trip to Sweden, in order to attend a little-seen festival. But things are not as friendly as they appear.
To say that Midsommar is odd among the current outcrop of horror cinema is an understatement. No, this is not a horror film at all. It is an intense psychological examination of the effect of trauma on an already ill mind, and on the ill-fated nature of a loveless relationship. Aster places his themes right in front of us in the opening ten minutes (a grim pre-credits sequence that sees both Dani’s tragedy unfold and Christian’s friends chide him for not leaving her when he is clearly unhappy), and with that, he has you in his clutches. From there, Midsommar delves deep into the weird. Many moments cry out to be meme material in this day and age of internet culture, especially if taken out of context. But in context, they will unnerve and horrify, while occasionally illicit a chuckle at how out-there some scenes go (an extended sex scene laden with surreal imagery offers strange beauty, yet verges on the ridiculous as it goes on).
Midsommar boasts techniques one might find in arthouse cinema (long take close-ups of characters crying/editing that will disorient but doesn’t feel amateur/a lotta drug-infused imagery), while also maintaining an overarching feeling of unease and genuine horror at how alien everything is. The film builds things up gradually. The members of the festival are not painted as oddballs to our outsider heroes, but as a simple people performing traditions, that most of our characters remain gallantly open-minded about. Its a far cry from the God-fearing Neil Howie of The Wicker Man, and presents welcome moral dilemmas for characters and viewers alike. Indeed, the shadow of that other seminal example of folk horror looms over, but Midsommar only ever pays slight homage to that giant (and seemingly nods to aspects of the horrible remake which one could debate as being the most horrifying aspect), never once feeling like an imitation, and always like its own beast.
Pugh and Reynor, the slowly-breaking heart of the film, work well together as two halves of a melancholy whole. Both characters are entitled to their emotions (Dani’s emotional and mental issues, Christian’s doubts on the future of their relationship) and as the film continues on, the decision of who to root for becomes ever more cloudy. Pugh delivers the best of the lot as the emotionally distraught Dani, juggling the PTSD she experiences with a genuine fear she clearly is trying to ignore, a task not easily handled as the film goes on to become ever more horrifying. It’s a performance that just about makes Midsommar Pugh’s film, as Dani resists the cult’s indoctrinating efforts, but gradually finds her walls of sanity and uncertainty knocked down with an emotional wrecking ball. Reynor, meanwhile, turns in a performance worthy of acclaim in its own right. At one point politely embracing the culture despite its ever-growing weirdness, at another he’s cowering and shaking in a state of terror that feels so genuine it verges on psychological torture. Reynor, having proved himself worthy in the years since Transformers: Age of Extinction, shows the commitment and bravery that makes great actors become legendary. Elsewhere, Will Poulter offers some of the film’s biggest laughs as the only true arseholey, basic-horror-movie-protagonist of the group.
Midsommar may well be one of the best films, and currently the best horror film, of the year. A portrait of a warped mind’s journey through heartbreak and loss, while also finding a solace within themselves. The visual style and laudable direction offer a sumptuous masterclass of how to do effective horror in an unlikely environment, all the while being capped off with outstanding performances and a huge helping of imagery that will stay with you for some time.