Long before the pagan weirdness erupts in Midsommar, horror has set in.
It’s the horror of a dead relationship, vividly presented by writer-director Ari Aster and star Florence Pugh, who plays Dani, in the early scenes a tense young woman anxiously awaiting word from her mentally ill sister, who has been dangerously unstable in recent days.
Dani gets room-temperature sympathy from boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), and when we see him alone with his bros, we understand why — he’s already decided on a breakup and is waiting for the right moment to end things.
That becomes morally impossible when Dani gets terrible news from home. Pugh is uncannily good in these scenes — lost to grief, looking for some anchorage with her boyfriend, so lost in her feelings she’s unable, or unwilling, to see, as we do, that he’s going through the motions.
One of his perfunctory gestures — made with the expectation that she will decline — is to ask her to tag along on his planned bachelor romp to Sweden, where his grad school buddy Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) plans to introduce the wolf pack to a rare pagan solstice ceremony featuring garlanded young maidens, fertility rituals, and psychedilc plants. But Dani doesn’t decline, and so the stage is set for a drama of escalating unease.
In these early scenes, Aster manages to juggle the intense psychological reality of Dani’s very raw emotional state and the shift to something darkly comic when the crew hits Sweden and Christian’s wingmen make a show of tolerating Dani’s clingy companionship. Aster’s list of influences is long, but you can feel the bleak and pitiless, discomfiting humor of Roman Polanski at work here.
Once in Sweden, Midsommar starts to follow a more familiar path — an apparently benign series of pagan rituals that grow increasingly disturbing as the days play out. Even so, there is invention in the way Aster spins it — it’s horror in an oppressively sunny setting of long days, and the colorful embroidered peasant folk art starts to hint at sinister narratives.
Gradually, it turns into a pagan freak show, much of it there to amplify the psycho-sexual tension between Dani and her boyfriend, who increasingly emerges in the slow-burn narrative as opportunistic and superficial.
We sense that he’s playing with, well, fire. This particular pagan cult may be matrilineal, in which case Christian’s priorities and desires are not (to put it mildly) prioritized, as he might expect them to be back home.
Elsewhere, Aster revisits some of the imagery we remember from his debut, Hereditary — mangled heads, viscera, etc. Also, there is something about naked middle-aged people that Aster finds evocative. Here it evokes a cautionary, be-careful-what-you-wish-for sexual encounter, featuring one of our amorous Americans.
The scene would surely rank as the movie’s main talking point if not for the bear.
That should stay between horror buffs and Aster, who has delivered a movie as atmospheric as Hereditary, narratively more satisfying, but much, much longer — it clocks in at an indulgent 140 minutes.
Midsommar. Directed by Ari Aster. With Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren. Distributed by A24.
Run time: 2 hours, 20 mins.
Parents’ guide: R (violence, gore)