There are few things more terrifying than Swedish hippies: well-mannered, meat pie munching, salt-herring slurping, commune dwelling devils that they are. Actually, that’s not true. There are few things less threatening than Swedish hippies. They’re total goobers. But that’s all part of director Ari Aster’s gambit in Midsommar. The audience knows this is a horror movie going in, they know the nature worshipping flower children are going to be bad guys, so Aster dares you to be afraid of them by making them incredibly likeable. And it works. Sure the hippies have a couple of creepy customs, but they’re super nice and willing to share their shroom tea, plus they have a bear. Aster fills the film with so much sunshine and good vibes that the steady stream of malice tends to trickle by unnoticed, like a psychedelic trip that’s gradually turning bad.
At its core, Midsommar is a breakup movie. Dani’s (Florence Pugh) and Christian’s (Jack Reynor) relationship is at its end, but gets extended beyond the expiration date due to a family tragedy that results in Dani being reluctantly invited on a summer trip to a Swedish commune. Dani is still haunted by the loss of her family and is scared to be alone. Christian, meanwhile, is too cowardly and lazy to break things off. Luckily, there’s a bunch of smiling Swedes in a surrealistic land of sunshine to help them through their issues.
Aster seems to be positioning himself as a playful trickster despite his bleak subject matter. Midsommar is filled with deceit and narrative sleights of hand. The very first image of the film lays out the entire plot, and yet pointing that out will spoil nothing. Aster brazenly reveals plot points throughout the film in ways that only multiple viewings and a passing knowledge of Elder Futhark runes will make apparent. But these sorts of winks and nods are for studious viewers and take nothing away from the story if unnoticed.
Midsommar makes a perfect companion piece to Aster’s debut, Hereditary. Hereditary was cold and dark, Midsommar is bright and sunny. Hereditary is about being burdened by familial baggage, Midsommar is about nihilistically casting off that burden. Both films trade in deep psychological torment, utilizing gore and grotesqueries as mere punctuation. Aster revisits the familiar themes of family trauma, mental illness, and smashed faces and redeploys a score of disconcerting strings that mimic and meld into all manner of screams and cries.
Also like Hereditary, this film is destined to be polarizing. Although engaging and briskly paced, Midsommar is still a two-and-a-half-hour slow burn drama. This is not the sort of horror that leans on indestructible slashers and whiz-bang chase sequences. So if you aren’t into artsy movies and/or suffer from a short attention span, you may want to skip this one.