Review: Florence Pugh is a Dazzling Goddess and Also Some Thoughts on ‘Midsommar’
In human existence, the light of day has always been a comforting idea . Our crops flourish, our eyesight is better, and we can roam further without the threat of predators lurking in the shadows. It instills a sense of security in our base instincts. Ari Aster’s sophomore feature Midsommar very purposefully plays with these instincts to deny us that safety as a folk horror story unfolds.
The film follows Dani (Florence Pugh) whose life is shattered by unspeakable family tragedy. In the wake of the incident, her unsympathetic and selfish boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), who had been trying to end the relationship prior, unintentionally invites her on a trip with his buddies Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to Sweden, where they plan to study Pelle’s home commune Hårga. However, upon arriving in Hårga for its traditional mid-summer festival, red flags arise with mounting vibrancy and danger as Dani and the others are ensnared in cult fanaticism and grisly traditions with no way out.
Aster is back at it with the ritualized horror, this time through the lens of male graduate student anthropologists looking to unpack, catalog, and study a foreign culture for their thesis. It carries a paternalistic curiosity for the strange and macabre, and like the audience, they are outsiders glimpsing a rare and shockingly graphic event, but are too mesmerized to look away. Despite the horrors on screen, it is still quite beautiful to behold, the film is symmetrically designed and gorgeously shot. The color palette of bright florals and blue skies takes the genre to a place it rarely goes, as the brightness and visibility make the world unsettling. It evokes psychedelic hippie aesthetics from the 70s, like a blood-spattered Joni Mitchell album cover.
Now for the real brilliance of the film: Florence Pugh. Her work is staggering as she captures and holds attention from the very first moments of the film to its final haunting frame. She is emotive, complex, well-nuanced, and multifaceted with palpable hurt and fear that cuts like a knife. Put simply, everyone else pales and withers in the shadow of her excellence. Having been on the Florence-Diehard-Fan Train since 2016’s Lady Macbeth, it’s vindicating to see her in the broader spotlight she so deserves.
As with Toni Collette’s Annie in Hereditary before her, there is a vein of horrific femininity that runs within Dani. Both characters are conflicted, unstable, and contorted by their experiences they endure. It’s a different kind of complicated character than what women have had the chance to be in the past. Dani struggles with femininity constantly—an unwelcome and disliked intruder to a male friend group looking to distance themselves from her. It’s her own boyfriend who’s responsible for isolating her, as he gaslights her as overemotional. I lost count of the number of times she blurted out “I’m sorry,” apologizing for her very existence, even when Christian was the one who had done something wrong. Her insecurity with taking up space, authority, and self-importance are challenges many women are all too familiar with.
Among the many terrors of the Hårga, the real base of horror in Midsommar is Dani and Christian’s toxic relationship. Jack Reynor is pitch-perfect in the beginning as a non-committal partner looking for a way out, with no regard for her wellbeing. It’s a clear display of male inability to express emotion or feel sympathy beyond the self. Christian is introduced to the audience as dismissive of Dani’s worries for her sister and parents’ lives, and inconsiderate of her subsequent trauma. She is gas lit by him, pushed to believe that everything is her fault, and that he will be wrongfully burdened if she is to share the strain of her emotional baggage. The realization comes when Dani is asked, “Do you feel held by him?” The answer is absolutely ‘no’, and its satisfying that her ultimate metamorphosis is to assume autonomy and control over others, and to give Christian exactly what he deserves.
As confidently directed as the film is, Aster still is susceptible to getting lost in the flowers. By being so enamored by the pagan cult imagery, he’s allowed some stray threads in the final cut that don’t quite make it back around to a satisfying conclusion. With an unwieldy runtime of 147 minutes , it’s evident extra details were kept to relish in the concept that could have easily been taken out while preserving the story. Though hearing that Aster originally intended a three hour cut, I believe we dodged a bullet.
Beyond comparisons between Pugh and Collette, Aster is remaking and rehashing multiple elements of Hereditary. The discordant soundscape, the family trauma, an unreachable child with facial deformation (it’s time to reevaluate why this is coded as ‘scary’, folks), and a ceremonial ending with bodily sacrifice all seem to carry over directly from his previous work. What is missing is the guttural horror and lasting impact that Hereditary wielded. Dear reader, I slept with the lights on for a week last summer. I still think of the dark corners of my ceiling when I wake in the night. Hereditary played with negative space in a way that Midsommar simply can’t, proving one downfall of the sunny Swedish countryside. For all the genetic material the two films share, there are some things that can’t be replicated to the same degree of effect.
One thing Aster does work into this script that was absent in his last film is comedy. The absurdist nature of the setting and plot provide ample space for audiences to react in other ways than fear. Though comedy and horror are a tough formula to concoct, it’s up to the subjectivity of the individual viewer to decide if it works for them. For me, it’s more miss than hit.
As for the frightening elements, I’m not underwhelmed, just over prepared for how ‘disturbed’ it would be. By honing in on gore and surrealist hysteria, there’s not much dread or prolonged sequences of impactful horror. It delivers exactly what you came to see with little subversion in expectations. We knew the cult would be twisted and dangerous all along, their intentions are spelled out clear as a sunny Swedish summer day. The multiple mushroom trips, while responsible for some cool visuals, cheapened the hysteria and creeping paranoia while eliminating any mystery as to why it was happening. In many ways it also brushes up against last year’s visual spectacle Mandy, which is equally as meticulous in production design and violence but feels sincerer in its psychedelics. Like a certain encounter between a man and a very large hammer in the Midsommar, it’s very on the nose.
Dani’s arc is its strongest asset by far, more fantasy than strict horror. It falls in line with unsanitized folk tale plucked from before the Grimm brothers and Disney could soften it up, and that idea is extremely compelling in contemporary cinema. I’d hesitate to call Midsommar revolutionary, but its unique color spectrum and Pugh’s tremendous performance are an experience to surely be had.