In ‘Midsommar,’ it’s dark beneath the midnight sun
“Midsommar” understands that the scariest things sometimes happen in broad daylight.
Ari Aster’s steady, unnerving horror mystery takes place in northern Sweden around the summer solstice, which means that the lights almost never go out and night hardly ever falls. By the final scenes, a viewer might be as dizzy and disoriented as the characters. More original in its details than its concept and broad outline, the movie’s still memorably creepy — a poisoned ice pop for the coming dog days.
Four young Americans and their Swedish friend head to Horga, a remote Scandinavian farming village. The Swede, Pelle (Vilhelm Blongren), is returning home after his version of a rumspringa, while the Americans have a variety of motives. Josh (William Jackson Harper, of TV’s “The Good Place”) has an anthropology thesis in mind. Dani (Florence Pugh, “Lady Macbeth”) is recovering from a family tragedy and hopes to shore up her relationship with callow boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). Mark (Will Poulter) is the contractually required loudmouth who just wants to get laid — a waste of this mercurial British actor.
The high-meadow setting is cloudless and bucolic, and the locals seem to have stepped out of an Amish IKEA catalog — you’ve never seen this much white linen outside of a yacht club. Easy enough for the Americans and two additional British visitors, Simon (Archie Madekwe) and Connie (Ellora Torchia), to ignore the unsettling touches: the buildings they’re not allowed into, the eccentric rituals, the unexplained bear in a cage on the edge of the village . . .
Writer-director Aster made a splash with last year’s “Hereditary,” in which Toni Collette and family underwent a series of grueling supernatural ordeals. With that film, smart, visually arresting, and relentless, Aster vaulted to the head of the New Horror class, but his strident lensing and cutting could wear a viewer out. “Midsommar” might be the lesser movie but some of us may prefer it.
The setup — civilized visitors among the eldritch agrarians — is overly familiar from films like “The Wicker Man,” and there are echoes of stories like “The Lottery,” songs like XTC’s “Sacrificial Bonfire,” documentaries like “Wild Wild Country.” But Aster knows he has an unusual location in the sun-bright village of Horga (filmed in Utah and Hungary), with its lush fields, ancestral tree, and ominous cliff-fall. He knows, too, that a politely smiling group of villagers with farming implements can seem more terrifying than any maniac with a chain saw.
“Midsommar” still piles it on in places. The long opening act, detailing the fate of Dani’s parents and sister, is the kind of narrative logrolling a college creative writing professor would tell students to cut out of their first drafts. (It’s there to give the gore-hounds something to lap up in the early stretches.) Underwritten characters and dropped plot threads abound — what’s with the town’s misshapen oracle? In general, the movie’s more effective than coherent. (That could be said of “Hereditary” as well.) And it’s not Reynor’s fault that you might keep looking at him and seeing Chris Pratt.
And yet. This is a filmmaker who knows the value of a faraway scream barely audible on the soundtrack. He squeezes every last bit of uneasiness from the place and its people — the dear old couple ready to pack it in, the apple-cheeked matriarchs with glints of madness in their eyes, the hearty men with their mallets. At two hours and 20 minutes and an ending you can see coming a fair ways off, “Midsommar” should be overlong, but I was held for the duration, and you may be too. (I’d still lose that opening.)
And in Florence Pugh, Aster has an actress willing to go the distance — to express romantic neediness, bottomless grief, utter panic, and, at the end of the day, the stamina to rise to the occasion of a pagan rave while wearing what appears to be a floral art installation. Much of the horror in “Midsommar” unfolds in bright sunlight; it’s the star who really takes us into the dark.
Written and directed by Ari Aster. Starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter. At Boston theaters, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, Somerville, suburbs. 140 minutes. R (disturbing ritualistic violence and grisly images, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use, and language)