“Midsommar” is a different kind of horror from what moviegoers are used to. While most horror filmmakers resort to gloom and tenebrosity to create fear, writer-director Ari Aster proves that flower crowns and white frocks can be just as sinister. This is in contrast to Aster’s debut feature, last year’s masterfully terrifying “Hereditary,” which set a high bar for his sophomore project.
“Midsommar” is a far cry from Aster’s last film in many ways — its imagery is nearly opposite to that of its dark, dreary predecessor, and it is not nearly as intensely emotional, either. However, the films have similarities: Both revolve around the terrifying aspects of grief and the complexity of human relationships, managing to make audiences feel dismayed and powerless after forcing them to confront the real-life horrors that lie within us.
The film follows a young American graduate student, Dani (Florence Pugh), as she grieves for the sudden deaths of her parents and sister while struggling to maintain a deteriorating relationship with her unsupportive boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor). In the midst of Dani’s trauma, Christian and his friends are invited by his Swedish colleague Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) on a trip to his remote hometown for a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer festival. Dani decides to tag along in a last-ditch effort to revive their relationship. On first sight, the Swedish community is welcoming, introducing the American visitors to the beauty of their village and its history. However, the dark underbelly of the commune becomes increasingly clear.
The film’s biggest fault is its predictability. The story is not nearly as complicated or surprising as one may hope, especially compared to “Hereditary.” The trope of Americans encountering madness in a foreign place has been done time and time again — in Eli Roth’s “Hostel” and Robin Hardy’s “The Wicker Man,” to name a couple — and it’s expectedly difficult for Aster to put a creative spin on it. The characters are at times frustratingly clueless, missing indicators of the cult’s violent nature — instances of unfortunate horror movie clichés that Aster was praised for avoiding in his debut.
Still, what “Midsommar” lacks in novelty, it makes up for with stunning visuals. As the characters descend into a dark fate, the film’s remarkable setting and cinematography become its greatest strengths. The village is permanently bright, filled with colorful wildflowers, wooden cabins and smiling blonde Swedes. However, despite the apparent beauty of the scenery, the setting is consistently unnerving — paintings on cabin walls display violent rituals, and the inhabitants use personability to mask their eerie behavior.
The camera angles complement the setting with symmetrical images and expansive long shots, making audience members feel like helpless outsiders looking into an increasingly perturbing world. When the eeriness takes a turn toward grizzliness as the characters witness graphic human sacrifices, the violence is extra haunting on the bright and sunny backdrop.
In addition to the beautiful filmmaking, one of the film’s great merits is the strong performances from its cast, especially Florence Pugh in the lead role. Pugh is unstoppable: Her expressions of emotions are raw and powerful, and she uses them to guide the audience through every stage of the plot.
While “Midsommar” is certainly very good by horror movie standards, it pales in comparison to Aster’s last film. However, while it may leave something to be desired in certain departments, it excels in others. Ultimately, “Midsommar” is an unnerving story that forces its audience to experience one of the most aesthetically striking nightmares they have ever had.
“Midsommar” opens at Regal UA Berkeley tomorrow.