Grief is obviously a touchy subject to tackle with the medium of film. In most cases, film is meant to be entertainment for people to take in. It doesn’t always have to be flashy action blockbusters or goofy comedies, but film can easily be structured with simple topics. Grief can be complex, deeply-rooted and sometimes inexplicable so that can’t always be solved with a structured film narrative. Not to say it could never be done as movies like Manchester by the Sea, Don’t Look Now and Jackie have tackled grief in different ways. One recent movie that tackled grief head-on was Ari Aster’s 2018 supernatural debut Hereditary, which focused on how dark emotions and impulses can be passed down and warped into something horrifying. Aster took an open wound of family tragedy and kept picking at it until the supernatural hell the movie’s family suffered was matched by the gut-wrenching emotional hell they brought on themselves. Hereditary portrayed grief as a winding, punishing labyrinth of madness that sunk its subjects deep. A little over a year has passed and Aster has tackled grief again in a longer, darker and somehow better film.
Midsommar follows Dani (Florence Pugh) stuck in a loveless relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor) and constantly second-guessing her worth to him. When she suffers a shocking family tragedy and becomes emotionally numb, Christian invites her to come along with him and his friends to a secluded commune in Sweden for a summer festival. Josh (William Jackson Harper) is fascinated by the festival’s ancient culture while Mark (Will Poulter) is fascinated by the amount of pretty girls in white dresses waiting to be deflowered. Dani, however, feels that something is off with the locals’ behavior and isn’t quite sure if she and the gang belong here. As the sun stays shining in the sky and the rituals become stranger, Dani and company’s true purpose at the festival becomes more obvious and more frightening.
Those who thought the 127-minute runtime of Hereditary was lengthy should approach Midsommar with caution and patience for its own 147-minute runtime. Though 90 percent of the movie stays in the grassy, sundrenched field of the commune and there are plenty of long stretches of uncut silence, Midsommar mostly holds interest throughout its duration. Aster brought multiple tricks up his sleeve to hold an audience’s attention, ranging from warping images in the background of scenes to abrupt sound edits to the bits of creepy imagery scattered throughout the commune. The creepy setting of commune itself (shot in a secluded section of Hungary) mixed with the smiling but stoic nature of the villagers are both spooky enough to keep the audience waiting for the other shoe to drop and the sinister nature of the festival to come to light. There’s definitely bloodshed and horrific imagery in Midsommar but it’s also frequently beautiful thanks to the costume designs, set decoration, Pawel Pogorzelski’s gorgeous cinematography and the folksy score by The Haxan Cloak. There’s also Aster steady and fluid camerawork knowing when to use space to capture the scope of the village and when to hone in on the personal horror his characters face.
While that set-up is very similar to that of The Wicker Man, the mystery of the commune doesn’t overshadow Dani’s character development. Like Hereditary, Aster equally balances the half-supernatural, half-slasher horror with the drama of Dani’s mental state and how her personal trauma plays into the events at the commune. Dani’s grief keeps coming back into the plot and influences it more as the movie goes on. For all the blood spilled and the creeping death in the air, Aster’s focus is on Dani and what she gets out of this village.Whereas Hereditary sees a woman losing her family through grief, Midsommar sees a woman trying to find a family in the darkness and the light. It’s not worth getting mixed up in the ancient lore the commune follows as it merely brings Dani and company closer to their fates. Every character here doesn’t get the most precise form of poetic justice when they meet their fates and only the Mark character seems lost, more fit for a corny Friday the 13th sequel than something like this. As funny as the occasional bits of humor are, it does feel slightly out of place in Aster’s game of manipulation through grief.
It’s all anchored by Dani herself in an incredible performance by Pugh. She understands that grief is not a showy performance playing to the crowd in the back, instead it’s being an emotional void to keep from completely breaking down. Pugh goes through the ringer Aster lays out for her and never once loses focus of her own character’s story. It’s actually best exemplifies when she cries: she doesn’t flood her cheeks with tears but instead takes heaving breaths between every scream that she makes sure the movie can hear. She practically vomits her soul when Dani’s trauma comes back to light and it’s impossible to look away from her. Reynor also does a solid job taking the typical dopey male boyfriend stereotype and at least giving a bit more dimension. He’s a victim of the madness in Midsommar but at least he isn’t completely oblivious to it. Harper is playing a more subdued version of his character on The Good Place but thankfully he’s not overtly nerdy. As misplaced as the sex-hungry comic relief character is, Poulter somehow makes it work and gets some actual laughs.
Looking back, Hereditary now feels like the easier prologue to Aster’s main event. Midsommar is like a genius contradiction: it’s long yet flies by, it’s a beautiful stage to play out such dark themes, it’s eloquently composed in its layout of shocking material. Aster has somehow found a way to do something he had already done exceeding well before and do it better without the troupes of a horror movie. The story and character arcs are so intriguing that it doesn’t need the mysticism or supernatural elements that Hereditary had to stay engaged with it. Aster is now officially one of film’s most engrossing ringmasters, it’s a wonder how he’s going to top Midsommar or what he can do next. If someone can make harrowing grief so thoroughly entertaining, what else can be done with something else?