Pugh plays Dani, a young woman who is in the middle of a bad long-term relationship with her inattentive and uncommunicative boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) when she receives horrifying family news; this harrowing ordeal is terrifyingly dramatized in the film’s first 15 minutes, so strap in for a rough ride. While under a cloud of aching sadness, Dani agrees – to her boyfriend’s not-so-well-disguised dismay – to accompany Christian and three of his buddies (William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, and Vilhelm Blomgren) to a very remote Swedish village in order to observe the local cult’s solstice ritual. The Blomgren character hails from said community and the Harper character is there to write a college thesis on it. The Poulter character is there to display every bad habit of a bad American tourist. Christian is more or less grist for the mill, openly ignoring Dani, exacerbating her emotional isolation.
Because Midsommar begins with such a brutal emotional onslaught, the audience will never shake off the encroaching horror that we know to be waiting in the wings. Even when our protagonists are seemingly finding comfort or catharsis in the ever-hanging Swedish sunlight, all surrounded by helpful smiles, flower garlands, and laughing children, we know that death will eventually interrupt. The mastery of the film is its ability to maintain its dread for as long as it does. At 140 minutes, Midsommar is determined to breathe.
Midsommar is clearly director Aster’s aesthetic tribute to folk horror, a long-standing subgenre of horror that was briefly popular in the 1970s – the original The Wicker Man is the genre’s crown jewel – and seems to be having a renaissance with films like The Witch, November, and Hagazussa. Unfortunately, because of Aster’s open affection for something so well-worn (and perhaps well-known to horror fans), and his insistence on keeping to well-known horror formulas baked into the genre, Midsommar’s late-film revelations reduce much of the action to tropes and clichés. Like Hereditary, the literal explanation for the previously abstract dread leads the narrative down the path of obviousness. It makes explicit something that was more powerful in being implicit.
However, with both Hereditary and with Midsommar, the tip into blatancy isn’t enough to entirely offset the fear that has already crawled into the darker cracks of your brain. Midsommar understand fear, panic, and mourning, and it will gently overfeed you on the horror those things entail.