With a pastel landscape that emphasizes its visitors’ disorienting journey from summer vacation into daylight horror, director Ari Aster returns with another psychological horror story tied closely to grief, loss, and trauma—this time grounded in a break-up (and in Sweden).
Grad student Dani, played by Florence Pugh, has recently lost her sister and parents in a horrible incident, leaving her alone with little avenue to grieve. Her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), also a student, has been debilitating breaking up with her for a year and, as a result, is emotionally distant. His friends, Josh (William Jackson Harper), Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), and Mark (Will Poulter), exhaustively remind him that her anxiety condition seems to be draining to Christian. However, after the incident, he feels compelled to stay with her.
The boys plan for a trip to Pelle’s home commune in Sweden for Josh’s thesis research and the others’ vacation. Dani is caught off guard by the trip—Christian buys tickets for himself without telling her, which she finds out during a party—and is reluctantly invited along.
It is a beautiful place—even knowing that it is a horror movie leaves one yearning to go—but the scene is cut with Dani’s understandably uncontainable grief and recreational use of hallucinogens. The latter feels especially prominent—in long, quiet scenes, the film lingers on the bright green grass, the white clothes of the commune’s people, and the blue sky, but something always feels a little off.
The group are not the only ones on the trip—they are joined by two other British students—but they, sans Dani, are slightly less respectful to the village. Josh studies and has clear devotion to the Midsummer practices—Jackson Harper’s good ol’ Chidi popping up at these times—but oversteps his bounds. Mark pees on an ancestral tree. Still, they are all mostly harmless in the face of the commune’s upcoming ritual.
There is a discussion in the film about over reliance in romantic relationships that shows a bit of Christian’s side. He reminds his friends of her problems and answers her calls. Yet, it becomes difficult to sympathize as Reynor’s portrayal of Christian communicates his character’s inconsiderateness with mumbling, clumsy movements. He shakily lights a candle on a dry bread for Dani after forgetting her birthday, the day they land in Sweden, which even Pelle remembers. It extends to other people too—later in the film, Christian attempts to steal pieces of a thesis from Josh and steamrolls his friend’s protestations with a frustrating confidence. It is just subtle enough—Christian’s thoughtlessness and insecurity makes the people around him feel like they are the ones who need to be apologizing.
In return, Pugh’s portrayal of Dani consistently backtracks on her feelings and soothe Christian’s ego. Pugh is so impressive in framing Dani’s grief and vulnerability—loud, screaming cries to stammering insecurity. Dani’s emotions are bottled deep inside; she often needs to take staggering walks by herself in order not to ruin the mood. Her need for connection and her anxiety condition forces her to censor her mourning, both disregarded and undermined too many times. The film follows Dani with sympathy that feels refreshing, even as people around her regard her harshly. (Although, unfortunately, Aster does not handle other disorders with as much grace.)
The commune, for sure, gets violent and evil. Aster’s direction and Bobby Krlic’s score builds dread for long, empty scenes that slowly set the pieces in place—in a way, it really feels like it is more about the feeling of being adrift since the characters get drugged, like, a lot. At times, the mythology and story behind the images feel disconnected—but the sensation more than makes up for it. Less scared and more deeply, deeply wary.
But the cult also has a sense of sharing resources and emotions—something that seems almost elevating in ways for Dani. Maybe it is not the right feeling to have, but in the end, it feels almost enviable.
Midsommar shows off its strength in visual and moods, creating a violent, dazed portrait of a crumbling relationship.