Darkness is the primal stuff of horror movies, the place where bad things hide. Almost every scene in Midsommar, the hypnotic second film from writer-director Ari Aster (Hereditary), takes place in broad, blinding daylight. Its setting is Sweden, a place that Americans (unless they're really into Scandinavian thrillers) tend to associate with cute furniture and wholesome living. It features the most sweet-tempered, downright happy pagan cultists you're ever likely to meet. But make no mistake, this is a horror movie.
With gorgeous shooting and a throbbing score, the movie lures us into the world of the isolated Hårga just as surely as its characters are lured in. When awful things inevitably happen, the perpetrators explain their necessity with patient smiles. Not since The Wicker Man (original) has a movie made such a disturbingly decent case for atrocities committed in the name of collective well-being.
Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth) turns in another fully committed performance as Dani, a grad student who travels to Sweden in the wake of a horrific loss. Still in deep mourning, she's tagging along with her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), who wants to ditch her but doesn't know how. Fellow student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) has invited them to a midsummer festival held every 90 years in the remote "commune" where he grew up. Along for the ride are a budding anthropologist (William Jackson Harper) and a comic-relief sidekick (Will Poulter) who basically belongs in a slasher movie.
From the beginning, it's clear that Dani's emotional rawness, Christian's simmering resentment toward her, and the Hårga's sacred rites will be a volatile mix. As we watch the villagers drive a subtle wedge between the couple, we know what to expect. It may still shock us.
Fair warning: Midsommar is long for a horror movie, and it's more predictable than the wrenching Hereditary. This is a film that lives or dies on its artistry and atmosphere — and for me, it lived.
Aster presents the cult's art and practices with the loving care of a National Geographic special (look closely at the art, and you'll see the whole film foreshadowed). Instead of offering jump scares, he plays with rhythm. A lengthy shot of a ritual lulls us into complacency; a smash cut to something nasty pulls us out.
In this movie, Klimt-like tableaux of maidens frolicking amid flowers are treated with the same aesthete's eye as severed limbs. When Dani trips on mushrooms, the flowers in her headdress pulsate as if breathing — a subtle effect that makes us feel like we're tripping, too.
With all this attention to ambience, Aster doesn't flesh out his protagonist as well as he did in Hereditary. The movie gives so little attention to Dani's backstory that the tragedy that kicks off the film feels borderline exploitative; a routine accident would have done just as well.
That said, Pugh can really deliver a primal howl, pulling us by main force into Dani's grief and quest for catharsis. The central irony of Midsommar is that the pagans have what Dani needs. They aren't embarrassed by the intensity of her grief, as Christian and his friends are; they have rituals to purge the darkness from the human soul.
And if some of those rituals get pretty dark themselves ... well, that's the whole point of going on vacation, right? To try new things? It takes a special kind of perversity and virtuosity to showcase the bleak logic of horror in the glare of the midnight sun, but Midsommar pulls it off.