Review: Sun shines darkly on horror tale 'Midsommar'

'Hereditary' director hits another home run with unsettling horror fest

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Jack Reynor and Florence Pugh in "Midsommar."

Nighttime is scary. When done right, daytime is scarier.

"Midsommar" gets it right. This twisted daylit nightmare is a masterpiece of mood, all the more disturbing since it's set entirely underneath the bright, beating sun. Anyone can be scared of the dark. Ari Aster makes you scared of the light.

Aster is the writer-director who last year made "Hereditary" and established himself as a sophisticated purveyor of wickedness. With "Midsommar" he doubles down. He's dealing in extremely messed up pagan rituals, and the plot can very loosely be described as "Hostel" by way of "The Wicker Man." Yet Aster's vision is so singular that "Midsommar" feels entirely original, a compliment to both his style and his ability to build atmosphere.

Florence Pugh, entirely convincing as WWE grappler Paige in this year's "Fighting With My Family," is dazzling as Dani, a college student who suffers an unspeakable family tragedy as the movie opens. Things get worse from there. Dani is stuck in a relationship with a boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), who's too lazy to break up with her. Out of guilt, he half-heartedly invites Dani to join him and his buddies (including Will Poulter as a horndog cretin and William Jackson Harper as a grad student) on a summer trip to Sweden. She takes him up on the offer and decides to tag along. No one is particularly thrilled about it.

Arriving in Sweden, the gang immediately begins ingesting hallucinogenics; Aster shoots these daytrips as the group, at times literally, becoming one with nature. They're introduced into a commune of robe-wearing, flute-playing villagers, who sing and dance and live off the land, and wear flower crowns that put the headwear at Coachella to shame. Vilhelm Blomgren is Pelle, the native Swede who introduces his friends to the community where he grew up. He makes it all seem normal, even as the environment becomes increasingly bizarre. What's with that yellow steeple building on the back of the property, and why's there a bear kept in the cage? 

Things go from "this place is kind of odd" to "what are we doing here?" when a pair of villagers heave themselves off a cliff while the crowd below cheers them on. Oh, they just treat death differently than stuffy old Americans do. But things grow stranger and darker from there as Aster surrounds the pals with a suffocating sense of unease and the motivations behind their journey surfaces. 

There are a few points where rational humans and even complete dolts would have taken off running for the hills, which Aster doesn't account for. But he's so good with the details — actions are foreshadowed in ritualistic drawings that are seen in the background and even the foreground of scenes — that you can look past his gaps in logic. Bobby Krlic's ominously bright score is always engaging.  

And Aster doesn't lose sight of the story he's telling. Though there's a superfluous side story about competing research papers, he's focused on telling the story of Dani, and her emotional reawakening and enlightenment. Pugh does so much in tiny gestures and below-the-surface emoting that her performance looks effortless, and Aster makes her glow. And the sunshine has rarely looked so sinister. 



Rated R: for disturbing ritualistic violence and grisly images, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language

Running time: 147 minutes