'Midsommar' is terrifying

Courtesy PhotoFlorence Pugh, Vilhelm Blomgren, center, and Jack Reynor star in 'Midsommar.'

We don’t associate horror with broad daylight. The things that scare us, particularly in the movies, live in the dark, where they can easily take to the shadows or creep out from beneath our beds. Sometimes, though, it’s much more terrifying when something steps into the brightest possible light, unafraid to be exposed for what it is, and then scaring us anyway. With “Midsommar,” his follow-up to the brilliant 2018 scarefest “Hereditary,” writer/director Ari Aster is out to prove that he can deliver full-on terror in the sunshine. He succeeds, even when we do see it coming. 

College student Dani (Florence Pugh) is going through a rough time, and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is convinced that he can’t break up with her because he doesn’t want to make things worse. Christian’s been thinking about ending things with Dani for a while so he can enjoy a little freedom, but then a family tragedy leaves her reeling, and he decides to stay. Things get more awkward when Dani accidentally finds out that Christian was planning to travel to Sweden to attend a rural festival at their friend Pelle’s (Vilhelm Blomgren) village, and he wasn’t going to tell her until it was too late. Christian invites Dani as a courtesy, thinking she’ll back out, but Dani ultimately decides to make the trip, and Christian’s resentment of her begins to swell.

It’s in this tense climate of a relationship on the verge of crumbling that Dani, Christian, Pelle, and their friends Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper), arrive at the Harga, Pelle’s strange commune where a festival that only happens every 90 years is about to take place. What begins as a simple culture clash involving customs the Americans consider quaint and odd rapidly begins to deteriorate into a drug-fueled horror show, and Dani realizes she’s made a mistake in coming on the trip.

If you’ve got even a passing familiarity with horror films, particularly the trippy subgenre that is folk-horror, then there’s a good chance you can see a lot of what’s about to happen coming, and the “Midsommar” trailers don’t do much to hide that fact. This is a movie about some American tourists going to a place they don’t understand, and that place turns out to be a nightmare. The writing’s on the wall very early on, so it’s up to Aster and company to make that work in their favor.

Aster does this with sunlight, as the events of the film are almost constantly unfolding beneath the midnight sun of Scandinavia. Here, the light becomes a metaphor for a certain kind of storytelling style, one that’s a rebuke to our spoiler-phobic age in which everyone is far too concerned with not knowing any detail about a story before they dive into it. Aster is not hiding anything, and even his dialogue helps to telegraph certain events in the film long before they actually happen. By the time the film’s over, very little about what has transpired will have surprised us. It’s how everything went down that’s scary.

To make that work, Aster uses careful, slow-burning pacing, a camera that looms over everything like an all-seeing eye, and sparingly deployed gore effects to create a constantly contracting and releasing sense of dread that pervades every frame of the film. The tension is sometimes released through comedy (Poulter in particular is hilarious in the film), but even when you laugh you only laugh so much. There’s something too nice, too beautiful, too perfect about this strange place our characters have wandered into, and Aster is determined to take advantage of every unnerving detail.

A film that relies so much on execution to carry its scares also requires a great cast, and “Midsommar” features a terrific ensemble led by Pugh, who displays a level of emotional endurance and sophistication that actors twice her age never quite master. She pushes herself to the absolute brink for the sake of this film, and it’s a thrill to watch. While no other role is quite as flashy, Reynor, Harper, and particularly Poulter help to build the sense of discomfort balanced with humor that makes the interplay between the interloping characters work particularly well. They know exactly what kind of movie they’re in, and they rise to the occasion.

“Midsommar” is not breaking any molds or transcending any genres. It does not reinvent horror as we know it, but it doesn’t have to. It’s a lovingly crafted, endlessly unsettling cinematic nightmare, and another exercise in well-executed terror from Ari Aster.