Late in Midsommar, the bewildered American tourist Christian (played by Jack Reynor) finally blurts out the question he’s been holding in for his entire trip to the strange Swedish enclave of Harga. “Excuse me,” he asks a bearded townsperson. “What is going on?” He doesn’t get a straight answer in return—the man just claps in his face, sending Christian’s poor soul into yet another wave of psychedelic confusion. But viewers can appreciate what the writer and director Ari Aster has hidden in plain sight: a folksy slasher film with a wry sense of humor, playing out in unending daylight.
Christian and his friends have embarked on a remote Scandinavian holiday in search of cultural enrichment with a strong dash of hedonism. Along with Christian and his longtime girlfriend, Dani (Florence Pugh), the band of doofy Americans includes the anthropology student Josh (William Jackson Harper) and the thickheaded bro Mark (Will Poulter). The film begins with a deadly, insurmountably distressing incident in Dani’s family, which stalls the separation that’s been looming between her and Christian. When Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), a Harga native and classmate of Josh’s, recruits the group for a trip to Sweden, Christian sees a chance to salvage the relationship: What’s better for romance than a simple commune where everyone pitches in on labor, wears flowing linen robes, and seems more than a little disconnected from the outside world?
As it turns out, they’re walking straight into a bloodbath, and Aster (who made his feature-film debut last year with the epically upsetting Hereditary) takes every opportunity to emphasize how clueless they are about what’s in store. As the group flies over the Atlantic Ocean, they marvel at the beautiful clouds outside the airplane window; Aster then moves his camera to the other side of the glass, where the wind is whipping and howling around their safe metal pod. It’s not subtle, and neither was Hereditary. In both cases, though, Aster wields his sledgehammer with extraordinary deftness. Midsommar is a culture-clash comedy, a breakup movie, and an homage to The Wicker Man all rolled into one, bursting with bright colors and wild, engaged acting. Pugh, in particular, has been poised for a Hollywood breakout moment since her arresting work in 2017’s Lady Macbeth, and this is it—the same kind of iconic performance Aster wrung from Hereditary’s leading lady, Toni Collette.
The director doesn’t try to hide where the story is going; he knows that the viewer expects a creepy mix of gore and drug-induced debauchery, and that’s what he delivers. But Midsommar isn’t deeply concerned with why or how things are happening. Though the carnage unfolds in due time and is explained as needed, Aster is more interested in soaking up character interplay through the comical bumbling of these ugly Americans abroad. Much as Hereditary was really a kitchen-sink family drama blended with an occult-horror film, Midsommar takes the mundane misery of a disintegrating relationship and renders it as a Technicolor thriller.
Whether Midsommar works for you depends on whether Dani’s arc lands with the emotional heft Aster desires; certainly do not go into the film expecting any high-octane kills or gorily creative set pieces. This is a long, itchy mood piece (its running time is 147 minutes) without the interruption of a truly shocking twist. All of the most skin-crawling moments in Midsommar are telegraphed to viewers ahead of time; some of them are even depicted in vibrant detail as murals that decorate the walls of Harga. Aster is laying everything out for his characters and delighting in their obliviousness; as things get more and more bizarre, he wants the audience to chuckle along with him.
I enjoyed some of the nasty visual flourishes Aster and his incredible production team work into the familiar daytime-horror genre: a bright-yellow-and-blue A-frame home where secret cult business goes on, and a sturdy-looking, wooden-mallet-toting fellow who is called upon only in very particular situations. What makes Midsommar a triumph, though, is Dani’s metamorphosis from a sullen, shell-shocked out-of-towner to … something entirely different. For Aster, all the fun is in the journey, and he’s created another mesmerizing one to bask in this summer.