As you brace yourself for Ari Aster's Midsommar, you wonder: Will it be another experience of harrowing catharsis, like Aster's debut outing, Hereditary? The film's opening scenes—coldly lit and scored with humming strings and animalistic howls of grief—seem to confirm it. When we meet college student Dani (Florence Pugh), she's isolated, enduring a nerve-shredding family crisis behind a mask of feminine selflessness and apparently afraid to reveal her emotions to her distant and manipulative boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), even after her worst fears come true. And all this happens before the opening credits.
But once an affection-starved Dani, along with Christian and his bros, follow their friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to his cultish village in rural Sweden for a mysterious pagan festival, Midsommar blossoms into a flower of a different color.
As they're invited to participate in the festivities, the Americans respond to their surroundings in varying ways: Christian and fellow PhD student Josh (William Jackson Harper, playing a much meaner nerd than in The Good Place) try to probe the village's secrets for academic glory, while douchey Mark (Will Poulter) ogles long-tressed local girls. Dani, meanwhile, wavers between unease with the cult's weird rituals and attraction to its sense of unshakable fellowship. Soon, they're all swept up in rites involving dancing, feasting, and tripping out, unaware that far more transgressive acts are being prepared.
The ensuing narrative is expansive, a bit funny, full of elaborate invented culture, and overall less exhausting (and exhilarating) than Hereditary. Midsommar traces a familiar path, at least if you're acquainted with classic British folk horror like the original Wicker Man, its white-robed, smiling cult members radiating a perfect calm that implies a secret cost. When the shocks come, they're not via plot twists but with the abrupt intrusion of blood and gore so extreme that at times it risks becoming farce.
Family, Aster's film implies, is held together by beauty, love, and a magical third ingredient: dehumanizing violence toward those who are unwanted. That the violence is aestheticized and sanctified is the point. Real trauma is transformed into theatrics so the whole community can purge itself. Even cherished family members must sometimes suffer for this renewal.
In light of this theme, embracing the ridiculous makes sense. Ritual, religion, sex, agony, and ecstasy—from the outside, they can all look pretty silly. When all of these elements come together in an awesomely weird, gorgeously choreographed finale, a familiar question arises: Who will be one of the saved, and who will pay the price? Where Hereditary is about losing a family, Midsommar is about gaining one, a process that's a lot less wholesome than it sounds.
One hint Aster drops in an early scene invites us to consider something even more disturbing. As Christian and his bros smoke weed in an apartment in the United States, the camera pans past a book called The Secret Nazi Language of the Uthark. While the Swedish cultists—who all learn a runic language as children—aren't necessarily white supremacists, it's not a stretch to view Midsommar as a warning. You may think you've found your family, but what is it asking of you? Who do you have to be in order to be welcomed?