Midsommar hits the ground running. Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) are close to breaking up, much to the relief of everyone around them, when a gruesome tragedy leaves Dani devastated. As their relationship limps on, they join a group of friends traveling to a rural Swedish commune, the hometown of their friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Once every 90 years, the villagers celebrate midsummer with elaborate feasts and rituals. Of course, it isn’t as idyllic as it seems.
The strained interactions between Dani and Christian create a relatable horror: the sick feeling of watching a friend waste their life in a bad relationship. Dani hustles to make the relationship work, to the point of self-sacrifice, while Christian barely talks to her. Watching people tersely almost-fight could be awkward or exasperating, but in Midsommar, director Ari Aster’s follow up to Hereditary, it’s so phenomenally well written and acted that it becomes captivating, a train crash that keeps crashing and crashing. Pugh in particular delivers a perfect performance, navigating the turns between frustrated to hurt to apologetic to absolutely traumatized with natural precision. Her mournful wailing is so primal it borders on terrifying, even as you are drawn to empathize with her.
Watching Dani and Christian’s relationship devolve is devastating, in the same way the family entanglement in Hereditary was, and the pastoral circumstances seem built to finally break the relationship beyond repair. But Midsommar never quite goes there. The impeccable build-up has little follow-through once the group reaches the festival.
The saving grace of Midsommar is a spectacular visual design. Every scene is brilliantly framed, and the costuming and art design of the cult are as gorgeous and purposeful as a well-constructed museum exhibition. The color palette evokes a beautiful painting that has been sun-faded, like a forgotten ’70s home video. Whenever Dani gets high, a gentle swelling effect pulses in the background, so the foliage seems to be growing fast enough that it might wrap around her.
The details make Midsommar a worthwhile viewing experience. The group dorm where everyone sleeps is painted to the nail with beautiful symbolism. A sinuous train of dancing villagers winds around the group as they picnic, like a snake in the grass. There’s a bear, in a cage, just hanging out. But the time spent gawking at unfamiliar rituals quickly wears thin; The lack of connection between the beautiful cult elements and the plot or characters drags the whole film down.
According to Aster, producers originally pitched him a slasher film set in a Swedish cult, and added the relationship elements as a human grounding for an otherwise well-worn concept. That’s a smart choice, but the seams where those ideas were stitched together are visible. The Dani-Christian relationship dynamic is mostly abandoned about an hour into the movie, in favor of obsessively scrutinizing the village’s rituals.
Like a lot of horror movies, Midsommar has xenophobic tendencies that are carefully justified by the violence of the culture in question. The violence is telegraphed — it’s a horror movie, after all — but it takes so long to arrive that the middle section feels fetishistic. Because the gore doesn’t lead to much, it’s hard to read them as anything other than a particular kind of shallow voyeurism.
A spike of character drama comes with Christian’s sudden decision that he will write his thesis on this specific village — scooping the already-claimed topic from his friend Josh (William Jackson Harper). The stakes are clear from Josh’s reaction that Christian has overstepped his bounds, since Josh “discovered” the village as a topic and thus has first dibs. It’s not totally clear whether this is supposed to be commentary on how Western academics “discover” cultures — usually the cultures of people of color — by codifying and reducing them to the most exotic (and therefore publishable) elements. While the story punishes Josh for selfishly disrespecting the village’s sacred boundaries, it also indulges in the reductionism at the heart of this condemnation; fairly mundane rituals, like not eating until the head of the table decides it’s time, are treated with the same intensity as other, more brutal sacrifices. If it’s meant to be critical of this reactionary perspective, present in both horror media and academia, it is too in love with the weirdness itself to succeed.
Midsommar has no mystery, and doesn’t deviate from the trail you’d expect a countryside-cult movie to walk. Each character is well developed and performed with more elegance than usually seen in slashers, but they’re all based on tropes so familiar that it’s clear what will happen to them. Even Dani and Christian, who are fascinatingly complicated, are given underwhelming conclusions because their relationship troubles never really climax. As each group member reaches their ultimate fate, it feels more like crossing an item off a to-do list than a captivating cinematic experience.
Other story choices are perplexingly obvious. Pelle explains, in no uncertain terms, that people are killed when they reach 72 years old. Nobody comments on this. Yet later, when they observe the ritual firsthand, they’re all shocked. I suspect this moment is supposed to read as foreshadowing, but like many of the plot points, it’s played so straight that it’s the same as being told exactly what will happen.
The editing is so good in the moment and so poorly paced in the fullness of the plot that it feels like the movie was too caught up in the trees to see the forest. The result is a uniquely stylish but underwhelming stroll through the woods.
Midsommar is now out in theaters.