A couple travels to Sweden to visit a rural hometown’s fabled mid-summer festival. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult.
Ari Aster, the writer director of the 2018 horror masterpiece HEREDITARY returns with the fascinating MidSommar with mostly effective results. Set in Sweden, MidSommar traps unwitting visitors at the center of a puzzling, often shocking summer solstice celebration that turns deadly. It’s unfortunate to report that, while this reviewer admired the sometimes grueling approach, I found the script to be filled with unnecessary tangents and a plodding pace that served to create mood and little else.
Our story begins with Dani (Florence Pugh) attempting to reach out to her boyfriend of 3ish years, Christian (Jack Reynor), during a particularly stressful situation. Christian, beyond annoyed at the repetitive phone calls, considers breaking up with her. He and his buddies are planning a trip to Sweden for the summer solstice and their relationship would only hinder his ability to immerse himself in the local customs let’s say. Quicker than you can say “SKOL!” tragedy strikes, ruining any opportune time to cut ties with Dani and Christian begrudgingly invites her along on their trip. Annoyed at the extra baggage friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) groan at the development. Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), however, is eager to get Dani to his home village and share his family’s secluded customs with her.
The five make their way to a spot just outside Pelle’s home village, far off in the secluded countryside and upon arrival immediately take mushrooms and begin to commune with nature. The next day they arrive at the festival grounds, and are effectively cut off from all other civilization. No cell coverage, no transportation back to town, and no real privacy. The outsiders are welcomed in with a curious glee from the villagers who put family and tradition above all else in their ritualistic pursuits. Everything seems to go so well until they are witness to the first barbaric ceremony. As the shocking events unfold, Dani clings to sanity and her threadbare relationship with Christian as she slips into a terrifying mental, emotional, and physical free fall.
Pugh’s impeccable portrayal of Dani is a troubled worrisome, sheepish girl of quivering confidence. We root for her when few others do and that is her power as a performer. As for the rest of the cast they effectively evoke responses. Reynor’s Christian is almost comically transparent in the awful way he treats Dani and others. Poulter’s Mark is grating, annoying, and exactly what all of us have had to deal with from that certain friend in the group.
Aster has described MidSommar as a fairy tale with horror elements. I would agree with this description as his script is not a horror story, yet what happens in it is horrific. It is a story of a young woman attempting to find her way in a world that is alien to her. While the main thread is rock solid, Aster seems to struggle with B plots in the script. This is admittedly difficult in a sequestered location, what he develops is mostly inconsequential. One storyline of Christian and friend Josh battling for the permission to tell the story of the village customs is develops over a collective runtime of 15 minutes give or take, only to be utterly abandoned.
Aster, famous for packing every square inch of the screen in layered detail and Easter Eggs here throws what more amounts to a collection of red herrings at the viewer that serve little to no purpose. Long, indulgent tracking shots serve to convey the rigid customs of the village and the ceremonial respect given to them but after several of these scenes, well, we get it already.
Thank gods that the production values are endlessly watchable. Pawel Pogorzelski sun-drenched lensing of the land that never sees night is a sumptuous visual feast. Henrik Svensson’s production design along with art direction from Richard T. Olson, Nille Svensson, and Eszter Takács deliver the look of a living, breathing Kurbits painting. We would also be remiss without mentioning Andrea Flesch’s glorious costume designs that are at once brightly festive and as unnerving as hell.
Let’s be clear. MidSommar is not a bad film, but an excessive one. Aster’s clarion understanding of social nuances and conflict shine again, inspiring painfully honest moments of comedy. Too, his skill in mounting dread and handling seemingly polar elements is fantastic. However, I think that here, the script could have used some careful trimming of large swaths without sacrificing the tone he was going for. I did not like MidSommar as much as I appreciated its audacity and the skill that clearly went into making it. This was a stunning work of art that embraced excess with a few positive results.