One of the biggest breakout hits from last year’s Sundance was Hereditary, the feature debut from Ari Aster, the young filmmaker whose shorts had become cult favorites all along the festival circuit. Featuring a standout, go-for-broke performance by Toni Collette, Hereditary begins as a family drama about the punishing strain of grief before turning into, as Aster has told Michael Koresky in Film Comment, “a film about a possession ritual from the perspective of the sacrificial lambs.” Dispatching to the A.V. Club from Sundance, A. A. Dowd called Hereditary “pure emotional terrorism, gripping you with real horror, the unspeakable kind.” Aster’s follow-up, Midsommar, won’t open until July 3, but early reviews have been trickling in over the past couple of weeks.
Once again, grief spurs the story. In the wake of a family tragedy, Dani (Florence Pugh) turns to her boyfriend, fellow grad student Christian (Jack Reynor), who half-heartedly invites her to tag along on a trip to Sweden he’s been planning to take with his buds, Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter). Their Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) guides them to the village of Hårga, home to a New Agey community about to celebrate the titular festival. “Aster pulls together a smorgasbord of Wotanism, late medieval superstition, Amish Anabaptism, Mormonism, May Queens, Sun King mythology, fertility rites, and even spiritualism,” writes the Austin Chronicle’s Richard Whittaker. “The residents are all suitably eerie, uniformly blond and blue-eyed and wearing white robes that become blown out in the summer sun. The American interlopers, in their blues and browns and grays, always stand out, and their grisly fates—or worse, strange survival—are inevitable and executed with Aster’s already trademarked cold distance. Yet there’s something incomplete, as if Aster—a remarkable stylist and formalist—gets so mired in the details that he loses sight of any bigger picture: It’s all trees, no forest.”
At Vulture, David Edelstein suggests that the “most ambitious horror blurs the line between the psychological and the mythic, between ordinary human emotions and symbol-laden Blakean nightmares, and Aster is very ambitious and very blurry.” Ultimately, though, for Edelstein, “the movie has no surprises.” Time’s Stephanie Zacharek wouldn’t go that far. She points to a blossom in the crown of flowers worn by one fair maiden that seems to be breathing, noting that “it blinks at us lazily, like a malevolent sea creature. Midsommar—in places reminiscent of the 1973 British horror classic The Wicker Man—is best during these wild and spooky storybook moments . . . But Aster is obsessed with building tension to the point of losing the plot.”
Along the way, though, “Aster pulls off his reveals like nightmares, floating down hallways with Kubrickian dread,” writes Time Out’s Joshua Rothkopf, and Midsommar “shows him expanding into nauseating sound design as well.” At the Film Stage, Conor O’Donnell finds Midsommar “far more fun to unpack than its predecessor.” For the Hollywood Reporter’s John DeFore, the new film suggests that “the budding auteur’s honeymoon with highbrow-horror fans isn’t over: He has more sides he wants to show them, and he’s willing to risk embarrassment to explore his vision.” DeFore’s bottom line: “More unsettling than frightening, it’s still a trip worth taking.” And at two hours and twenty minutes, it’s no brief joy ride. “Midsommar is the kind of swing-for-the-fences passion project, the kind of operatic opus, you make when you’re fresh off a runaway success,” writes A. A. Dowd. “But there’s a deranged integrity to its sprawl, and to the filmmaker’s willingness to embrace the darkest, most unsparing aspects of human desire.”