There can be no doubts now: horror has a new master.
Director Ari Aster suggested as much with last year’s Hereditary, a film that gave new meaning to creeping dread and opened new doors in the realm of horror narratives. It was an audacious debut that expertly toyed with genre expectations and was every bit a meditation on the generational effects of trauma as it was a stellar demonic story.
But the annals of cinema are littered with directors who never quite captured the magic of their debut and who saw their rising star fade with a fizzle with their sophomore effort. The sophomore slump can be a devastating hit for filmmakers and fans alike. Aster, thankfully, has smashed this curse into a billion pieces with his latest film, Midsommar.
Proving that Hereditary was no fluke, Midsommar is an astounding work of folk horror that bends itself completely to the wills and whims of Aster. As a filmmaker, Aster revels in the art of discomfort—check out his shorts, The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, Beau, or Munchausen if you’re feeling up to being deeply uncomfortable—and he takes his art to new heights in Midsommar.
Like his previous effort, Aster masks a relatively low key and intimate story inside of a horror package. The film follows Dani (Florence Pugh) and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) as they navigate the difficulties of their relationship which is quickly coming to an end. While a horrific tragedy in Dani’s family keeps them bound together, the cracks in their foundation have already begun to show to Christian’s grad-school friends, Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). When Pelle invites his friends and Dani to return to his isolated Swiss village for a local celebration, they jump at the chance. Soon, however, they discover nothing is as it seems.
Pugh gives a horrifying, powerhouse performance as Dani, a woman haunted by tragedy and impending loss. Every slight she endures at Christian or his friends is devastating thanks to Pugh’s portrayal and increasingly finds itself swirling in Aster’s pagan horrors. The juxtaposition of these themes works as well as it did in Hereditary, with both serving to bolster and enhance the other as Aster slowly and methodically ramps up the madness.
While never as outright horrifying as Hereditary, Aster continues to play with dread as a conception. Midsommar is a meticulously layered and deliberately paced film that unnerves more than terrifies, leading to a climax that will continue to haunt for days. Each second of screen time serves a greater purpose, with every scene adding a small drip of dread that builds and builds.
As with his previous film, Aster plays with convention and twists them to his own designs. Hereditary kept its cards close and never revealed what kind of film it was until the final act, allowing him to keep audiences off guard and unsure of what to expect. With Midsommar playing in the folk horror sandbox, it’s somewhat harder to keep us similarly unbalanced but Aster finds a way. We’re told immediately what to expect, and while he keeps those promises he does it in such as way that we’re never sure precisely what is happening or where truth lies.
Part of this is accomplished through the use of hallucinogens as a device. Our cast of characters spends much of the film on mushrooms or other psychedelic compounds and Aster’s composition reflects this. Never does he descend into the hackneyed world of 60’s psychedelica; we are not inundated with swirling rainbows and technicolor nightmares. Instead, Aster goes subtle. Plants breathe, trees vaguely vibrate, and reality shifts in faintly seen ways.
The cumulative effect is stunning as both the relationship-on-the-rocks and pagan bloodletting storylines come to a horrific close. Aster understands that horror works best as a snowball, giving us no catharsis as the film creeps toward the climax. We can do nothing but stew in the increasing pressure he exerts upon us and revels in having us endure.
For the second time in as many years, Aster has delivered a horror film that bucks convention and changes the possibility of what horror can be. It is, simply put, another masterpiece, cementing Aster’s claim to the throne of modern horror and ensuring his ascension into the canon of the genre.
Midsommar is now playing in theaters everywhere.