After having suffered a terrible tragedy, young Dani (Florence Pugh) is at her lowest ebb, constantly relying on comfort from her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), much to the annoyance of his friends Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper), but when the guys are invited by their friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to visit his community in Sweden in order to study the beloved mid-summer festival, Dani is invited along and, though initially unsure, she accepts after encouragement from the understanding Pelle. Upon arriving, the community members appear pleasant enough but as certain rituals are performed, the American students start to realise that all is not what it seems and it soon becomes clear that they are in a certain amount of danger from the mysterious commune.
Although Midsommar gets off to a particularly glum start, with its characters acting pretty miserable as they barely smile, moan quite a bit, and try to cope with Dani’s ordeal (though this opening part of the film does well in showing how difficult things can be for someone going through grief – with so many awkward and uncomfortable interactions and the surrounding people unsure of how to act), the first half of the film is actually quite strong and when the characters finally arrive at the all important central location, Midsommar proves to be an engrossing experience that’s admirably designed and shot, with a clear attempt at creating an increasingly unsettling and creepy atmosphere.
From the time when the American students arrive, the community and the people in it seem pleasant enough and these opening scenes are a “warm blanket” of sorts as we are initially meant to believe that these people are perfectly mild mannered and spending time in the beautiful surroundings is, at first, a comforting experience. These scenes in the commune also highlight the admirable cinematography and production design; Midsommar has a certain colour palette and most shots are noticeably bright and visually appealing, going hand in hand with the surroundings and the characters. The camerawork does well in making certain rooms look genuinely huge and the production design is also noteworthy – plenty of research was surely done into similar, real world festivals and most of the time, there’s something fascinating and engrossing to look at.
But of course as events take the inevitable sinister turn, we realise that the characters are in danger and the film tries its hardest to disturb and unsettle the audience with its grisly images, weird characters and menacing score. Even though the film failed to phase or unsettle me, the first half of Midsommar is nonetheless a magnetic and transfixing experience because the film takes its time in slowly “pulling back the curtain” on the central festival and as things unravel, there’s always something interesting and engaging happening on screen and for most of the film, I wasn’t bothered by the undeniably slow pace because I felt that the film was building up to something big and I enjoyed watching these characters gradually fall apart, I was taken in by the appealing scenery, colours and designs, and I wanted to know just what it was all building towards.
Unfortunately, the molasses-like pacing eventually becomes far too testing and after a certain point, it regrettably becomes clear that the film isn’t actually building to anything special and Midsommar ends up repeating itself with its trippy visuals, ominous designs and general creepy behaviour but in the end, whatever purpose or meaning it once had is eventually lost. Because although the central character of Dani is put through an ordeal at the beginning and throughout the film, haunted by the people she’s lost, after a while this character building becomes irrelevant and it ultimately amounts to nothing – her backstory and grief are left to one side and her character journey is forgotten about as writer/director Ari Aster appears more focused on trying to creep people out with his numerous scenes of weird behaviour, captured with as many camera “tricks” as possible (I mean, the camera turns upside down as they enter the village. Why?)
Even the very last shot, where Dani visibly changes as she witnesses the unfolding carnage, makes no logical sense and her final “transformation” is merely there for stylistic purposes, at the expense of credible character development.
It’s a shame because Midsommar had the potential to have a really unique and memorable story to go with its wonderfully chosen location but after a while, it becomes clear that there will be no real surprises and that this is exactly what you’d expect from a “group of students find themselves in a pagan cult” type of film and it even kind of descends into generic horror movie fare when the characters keep on making very stupid decisions and taking too many drugs. Although I really dug the first half, my patience eventually ran out when the film eventually “gave up” and just went on to give us one slow, creepy scene after another and allowing its once promising narrative to slowly disappear, resulting in a slightly derivative film without purpose or real reason to exist, besides providing a slightly unsettling cinema experience. It also doesn’t help that the runtime is unnecessarily bloated and it seems that, after Hereditary‘s glowing reception, Aster was given carte blanche to make his next film however he saw fit but really, he should’ve been reigned in in order to make Midsommar a more compact and meaningful affair.
The cast here are all decent and in the leading role, Florence Pugh gives everything she’s got and she reacts believably to all the horror that is unfolding but in all fairness, this isn’t her best performance. It hurts me to say it as I’m a huge fan of hers, having seen nearly everything she’s been in, but the character of Dani isn’t particularly well written or interesting and Aster doesn’t allow her to do anything other than cry, scream, react to the other characters or stare seriously into the distance. And the same can be said of Jack Reynor’s character who had the potential for some interesting development (at one point I predicted that, since he was encouraging Dani to acclimate, he was “in on it” and that he would end up as a Guy Woodhouse type character, which would have been very effective) but, although Reynor is a good sport throughout, his character is only OK and he doesn’t bring much energy or interest to the table. As for the others, Will Poulter nabs all the funny lines and he’s really quite good as the insensitive Mark, The Good Place‘s William Jackson Harper is a confident side player as the knowledgeable Josh, and Vilhelm Blomgren is particularly likeable as the supportive Pelle, though it’s a shame that we don’t see more of him when things get ugly.
It’s also worth pointing out that the main characters clearly don’t follow the three Scream rules on how to survive a horror movie. Just saying.