In the land of the Hårga people, the sun never sets. That makes it a strange spot for a person seeking rest, but for Dani (Florence Pugh), the heroine of Ari Aster’s Midsommar, there aren’t many other options. In the movie’s first scene, psychology graduate student Dani finds out that her sister, who had bipolar disorder, has killed herself and their parents, leaving Dani all but alone in the world. The “all but” includes her long-term boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), who’s been thinking about using his field research trip to a remote pagan community in rural Sweden with a group of fellow anthropology students as an excuse to break things off. But Dani’s tragedy, and his guilt over telling her to ignore an ominous message from her sister, means that Christian is stuck with her—and instead of leaving her behind as planned, he offers to take her along.
The drive into the Swedish countryside is a beautiful one, despite the fact that Christian’s colleagues Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) aren’t thrilled to have Dani along; Josh doesn’t want an outsider mucking up his thesis project, and Mark was hoping they’d be able to have some bachelor fun along the way. Their host Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) is happier that she’s there and eager to share his cultural traditions with outsiders, but a welcoming dose of psychedelic mushrooms sends Dani on a bad trip. She hallucinates grass growing up through her feet and imagines that groups of strangers are laughing at her rather than at one another. Warning signs are everywhere, or would be if you knew the runic alphabet, but Dani and her friends don’t immediately notice when the pagan celebration they’ve come to witness starts to turn them into participants—and when they do, they’re too fascinated to turn away.
Aster’s Hereditary, a breakout hit at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, was organized around the idea of inherited mental illness, but the movie was too in love with its own chaotic energy to fulfill its theme. Midsommar doesn’t have that problem. Despite its lengthy running time and literal and figurative shagginess, the movie is defined from the outset by Dani’s loss and isolation, the ruptured connection with her own family and the terrible freedom that follows. Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski shoot in long, flowing takes that seem to take in all of Hårga at a glance, but then somehow there’s always another wooden outbuilding hidden behind the last, some mysterious structure we’ve never quite noticed before. The Americans, along with an English couple who’ve been recruited by another one of Hårga’s visitors to the outside world, are greeted with open arms, but the village’s traditions are too old and too foreign for them to even understand, let alone anticipate.
The Hårga, as Pelle explains to his guests, have a conception of life that’s divided into rigid cycles: 18 years of childhood, 18 years of pilgrimage, 18 years of work, and then 18 years as a village elder. (When Dani asks what happens after they turn 72, Pelle responds by playfully slicing a finger across his throat; lack of internet access prevents them from Googling “ättestupa” to find out what’s about to happen.) That rigid timetable is derived from the natural world, but they’ve extracted their own order from it, a series of rituals that grow increasingly strange and threatening as the dayslong celebration rolls on—not that, with the lack of nightfall, it’s possible to keep track of when one day ends and another begins. Dani’s friends, all ugly Americans of one sort or another, let their individual agendas, whether academic success or simple horniness, blind them to what’s going on around them, but Dani sees it, albeit as if from a distance. After starting the movie babbling “no, no, no,” in Christian’s lap, by the end Dani is nearly catatonic, barely speaking at all. But Pugh draws us in through her oversize eyes so that we see what she sees, even when we’re tempted to turn away. (If you are sensitive to the sight of gore, that temptation may be especially strong.)
Like Hereditary, Midsommar is about a character who understands too late that a world they thought was arbitrary is structured according to rules they didn’t understand. The horror in Aster’s movies isn’t about facing the unknown but about being surrounded by people who know and keep it from you. Dani’s anthropologist buddies try to understand the Hårga with logic and pay an elaborate and severe price for it (as you might imagine, a movie about pagan traditions doesn’t turn out so well for a character named Christian), but Dani’s a psychologist—not a psychiatrist, she explains to one villager, which is how “you know I’m really crazy.” We never see her go off her meds, but either they stop working or there’s something in the local water that loosens their grip on her psyche. Either way, she’s set free: free of her past, free of her neurochemistry, maybe even free of her terrible boyfriend. If Hereditary was about being trapped, Midsommar is about the terror of being let loose, the giddy, sickening rush of freefall. You laugh at its audacity, or maybe just to keep from losing your own grip on reality. By the time it’s over, you can’t wait for night to fall.