To call Ari Aster’s 2018 film Hereditary polarising is somewhat of an understatement. Following rave reviews at Sundance, and yet more waxing lyrical upon its release, it left general audiences somewhat conflicted, its methodical look at grief and the demons we inherit from our parents too much for some. It was, however, a talking point amongst most (decapitations in film will never be the same again), so, it was inevitable that Midsommar would be looked at with just as much, if not more scrutiny.
Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before: Dani (Pugh), joins boyfriend Christian (Reynor) and three of his friends to Sweden to participate in a local festival, only to find themselves in the clutches of a cult. Luckily, this is where the generic ends and the terrifying begins – rather, not a horror (although, for simplification, the term is generally used), but a psychological thriller studying the effects and downfall of a toxic relationship.
The film is unforgiving towards its actors, the camera focusing on them during long, static shots. An early phone call made from Dani is almost unbroken, a tight close-up portraying a sense of helplessness and anxiety she feels towards situation in which she finds herself. This style is used frequently throughout the film (perhaps with the exception of the close-up), and it’s a testament to the talents of the actors involved that the subtlety of the camerawork and dialogue doesn’t make their performances any less satisfying. It is often a beautiful film, drenched in sunlight and flowers, the only darkness in the film’s opening act – a slow camera zoom through a window into the night strongly suggests that there is no turning back now; there’s no escape from the darkness to come.
In fact, all of the performances are fantastic, if not astounding. Jack Reynor is perhaps the best he’s ever been as Christian (not a name of coincidence), a boyfriend no longer interested in the woman he’s been dating for three-and-a-half - sorry, four – years. Both William Jackson Harper as Josh, Christian’s smarter classmate, and Will Poulter as Mark, toxic masculinity personified, lend more to their characters than the stereotypes most horror films lean towards (I’m looking at you, Ma).
However, acting-wise, the film belongs solely to the tremendous Florence Pugh, whose portrayal as Dani is one of the best horror movie performances since, well, Toni Colette in Hereditary (not too mention one of the best of the year so far). Pugh has no problem conveying the disintegration of Dani’s mental state whilst also making us sympathetic towards her plight, and it truly cements her as one of the best up-and-coming actors working today.
Ari Aster seems to be a natural at writing and directing the genre, skilfully weaving human experience with the more surreal aspects of horror. The most disturbing scary movies are those with commentary, and Aster now works with the likes of Jordan Peele to bring the nightmare situations to the surface in an elegant manner. The study of the breakdown of its central romantic relationship is neither too heavy-handed nor slight, however, bizarrely, Hereditary may be a (slightly) more accessible mainstream horror for those who like a little less sub-text with their gore. Its slow-burn and long run time, coming in at about 140 minutes, won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the mystery of the community in which the characters find themselves is a highly entertaining mind-fuck.
Midsommar further solidifies Aster’s reputation as a filmmaker to watch – I, personally, would now watch anything he makes – and showcases Pugh’s talents for a wider audience. It may be too heavy and slow for some, but its unpredictability and relatable narrative (yes, really), make it one to watch.