True horror films are often virtual endurance tests. The payoff is the great equalizer — usually. We, as audience members, put our trust in the filmmaker that, OK, if we sit through 90 minutes of Freddy Krueger killing teenagers, the bad guy will get his in the end. But what's to be done when the payoff is elusive? Is a horror movie still worth seeing if all it wants to do is horrify? Well, yes, a zillion times, yes.
The horror genre has seen a magnificent resurgence over the past ten years. It's become a platform for auteurs. Filmmakers like Ari Aster (Hereditary) have brought visual technique and elevated purpose to scary movies where there was little before. Aster's second film, Midsommar, is another high-concept horror exercise. Its payoff is up for interpretation, but that's only a piece of the structure. This movie is a thresher, a fire alarm of a film that never allows you to feel safe. It is Aster's wonderful gift.
Swedish cinema is rich in the tradition of family, myth, and the rolling pastoral settings in which Aster sets the unreality of Midsommar. This is Jan Troell on acid. Centered around a group of typically brainless Americans venturing to the Nordic country for a remote getaway at a local festival, the film's set up is ordinary. A million horror movies begin with a bunch of morons heading out to a campground, or a cabin in the woods, or Chernobyl. What separates Midsommar is what happens next, which is anything but ordinary.
Florence Pugh has been in six films over the past two years thanks to her restrained, furious performance in one of the best movies of 2017, Lady Macbeth. It made her a star and she beckons some of the same intensity in Midsommar. She plays Dani, an American shell-shocked after the murders of her parents and sister. Her story begins in medias res and never explains the violence, an early indicator of the cutthroat happenings about to transpire.
Searching for some semblance of sanity, Dani heads to the wrong place. Her "issues" don't impress her meathead boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), or his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter). Although, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) expresses sympathy. The boys are more concerned with their trip to Pelle's hometown, a remote village near Hälsingland where a 90-year midsummer festival is held. By the way, the sun never sets, the people all look like The Village of the Damned, and Dani is coming along.
Upon arrival, all the cult people are grinning like mad and wearing immaculate white. On cue, a creepy redhead stares past the camera. The sun is blinding. A bear is chilling in a little cage. Drinks are served, with drugs! And food appears at a giant X-shaped table. The imagery is relentlessly beautiful — the imagination of Aster mixed with the technical wizardry of lenser Pawel Pogorzelski. There's so much to admire as the festival unwinds and "games" are played. Midsommar has the violent sensibilities of Bryan Fuller's Hannibal, the dead-eyed pagan dread of The Wicker Man, True Detective Season 1, and last year's Apostle. Meanwhile, it has Wes Anderson moments in production design and symmetry. But the weirdness of it all, the random horror, recalls Yorgos Lanthimos and instills a jet black sense of humor. It's at once a pastiche and a subversive original vision. (This is the brightest horror film ever made.) Aster's voice is very much his own, despite his influences. Midsommar feels expectant, the same way Hereditary does, and they share a visual style.
Midsommar thrives off its imagery as Aster seems content to move from one brutal game to the next, rather than allowing the emotional journeys of his characters to guide the way. They're in there, make no mistake, but they're more cannon fodder than real people. The stakes are low. But at least we have Dani. Pugh possesses an innocence in the film that makes you want to protect her, despite her consistently idiotic decisions. Aster, who also wrote the script, manages to convey a female empowerment theme via Dani's inevitable breakup with Christian and her emerging independence. So the film is far from empty. Just don't expect anything to be black and white. Midsommar is one of those modern horror movies where the villain is something intangible and the devil stays with you long after you've left the theater.