Director: Ari Aster
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren; ft. Will Poulter
Tagline: Let the Festivities Begin.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: thriller, drama, psychological thriller, folk horror, Americans abroad, cult
Scare score: D+
Plot overview: Following a terrible family tragedy, grieving Dani (Pugh) tags along with distant boyfriend Josh (Reynor) and his fellow anthropology graduate students on trip to partake in a once-in-a-lifetime traditional Swedish solstice festival at the invitation of their friend Pelle (Blomgren). Upon arriving to Hårga, Pelle’s isolated commune in northern Sweden, a mix of psychedelic drugs and the delirious effects of the midnight sun soon turn the visitors’ search for unique folk traditions into a bad trip of much darker pagan rituals.
This film was gorgeous. I rushed to see it in theaters on opening day, which means that I saw it in a much more crowded theater than I am used to attending. Being surrounded by teenagers took away from much of the film’s mastery— especially in the more mature (read: nude) scenes. In many ways, this is a subtle film, filled with stunning shots, quiet beauty, and a story line that allows you to slowly settle in and experience the characters’ pain. In other ways, the film is not subtle and gives the audience all the tools we could possibly need to know exactly what to expect (mostly through the illustrated exposition in the jaw-dropping murals and folk art we see throughout the movie). I was reminded of Hereditary in this sense, which was filled with more than a fair share of Easter eggs, often in the form of small visuals and art that becomes easier to pay attention to and feast upon in second or third watching’s. Some of my favorite bits included how the audience is invited to take place in the mushroom trips, including some funky camera work (such as the aerial shots when the larger group first heads to the commune) where the twisting camera makes us lose our own balance for a moment. I would love to watch it again as soon as possible in a deserted theater where I can get lost in the film’s artful cinematography and careful details in order to keep reliving what I saw tonight.
Aside from the shots and excellent editing—I will never be over these rich visuals—the acting was fantastic. Florence Pugh was perfect for the role of Dani, especially early on when we get to experience those animalistic groans coming from her. There was something very important in this film about how bereft she often was, how heavy her depression weighs on us—much like Toni Collette’s character in Hereditary—as well as the relationship dynamics that play out in the first third of the movie. Is Dani just an overly sensitive, overbearing girlfriend? Jack Reynor as the one-foot-in, one-foot-out boyfriend adds fun dynamics to the movie, especially towards the end as his character experiences a climax and denouement more typically assigned to females in horror. I have long said that I enjoy few things more than well-placed nudity in horror films, and Midsommar, like Hereditary, has it in spades, including plenty of Reynor such that a modern audience is bound to react to this perversion of mainstream movie “rules” and tropes. I also very much enjoyed the aesthetics and performance of Isabelle Grill as Maja, a younger adolescent in the commune who has been selected to take part in a very special ritual during the nine-day solstice celebration.
This movie is gorgeous but it is not scary. It is a slow-burning movie that makes us often forget we are in a “horror” movie because, aside from some moments of tension and some flashes of disturbing imagery (so well done), there is no extreme suspense such as we encountered in Hereditary, or even in an older film like The Wicker Man from which this movie so clearly pulls (including a nod at the end with the character of the fool… even Dani’s floral gown reminded me of that large horse costume). I usually love horror movies about travelers in the abroad, and while I wonder if Midsommar will have the effect on Sweden that something like Hostel had on Eastern Europe, this movie was not as frightening as as the Netflix’s wonderful The Ritual. Many of the “scary” scenes are presented so fantastically that we, too, become students of anthropology, more interested in the culture and in what is going to happen next than in the inevitable darkness of it all. I knew the movie felt long—rarely dragging, however—but I was shocked that I didn’t know about the film’s near-two-and-a-half-hour run time. That said, I just want to watch it again and again. I think the gore was surprisingly fine, not nearly as jarring as my fellow audience members made it out to be, and in fact I was surprised as how many major deaths happen offscreen without explanation or closure, and with fairly little emphasis given to the body discoveries that so often shape the third act of horror films. What sticks with me most is the murder-suicide from the beginning, which we are unwilling shown flashbacks to throughout the film in the most excellent ways. I think those are the most purely disturbing images that will stick with me, so painful, so contrasted in a cool palette set in midvinter (ha ha) from the rest of the film’s near-blinding white and florals.
Some of my other favorite moments were the shared emotions among the members of the commune. The importance of a collectivist expression of pain, suffering, sorrow, and also joy morphed into such fantastic moments in this movie, especially during the ättestupa suicide ritual, Dani’s final breakdown after the brilliant keyhole moment, and the emotionally whelming ending. As far as critiques go, I suppose we always knew where the movie was headed, so it was more of a matter of how we were going to get there.
Horror Hot Take:Midsommar is not a horror movie. Sure, some horrible things happen and there is fantastically beautiful and often gory imagery that we typically see in horror films, but this second feature from Ari Aster is not as steeped in the horror genre as its predecessor. Aster himself made it clear that while he was approached by producer Patrik Andersson to make a Swedish slasher film, he ultimately decided to make a movie about a breakup filled with as much pain and sorrow as the one he was then experiencing in real life.
That said, Midsommar (like Hereditary) is a movie about grief. There is a process, an arc, a journey that we ride along for as Dani grieves not only the shocking murder-suicide of her sister and parents but of her dying relationship and dying (and soon to be reborn) sense of self. A student of psychology herself, Dani’s care-taking tendencies are obvious as she puts everyone else before herself to the point of having no ego strength, no boundaries, and no identity that is not in relation to others. Her relationship with Josh—himself a coward on many levels—is the definition of codependency as they shy away from fights and often apologize for each other’s misgivings. Dani even gaslights herself and questions her own reality (forcing the audience to question our reality throughout the film). Truly it is a pitiful sight to watch: We feel sorry for Dani and her trauma, but foreshadowing already tips us off early on about the changes waiting to take place inside of her. Often dependent in nature, does Dani even exist if alone? This question explains her choice to find a new community, one that supports her unlike other people in her life, others who are now all gone.
Final critique: This is a visually stunning and emotionally gripping movie. It does not rely on musical cues or cheap scares by any means but rather uses striking visual after visual after visual to sink its way into the viewer’s brain, pairing beautiful sights with more disturbing images and testing the audience insofar as what they are able to sit and watch. In the case of my crowded and mostly adolescent audience, the desire to react vocally to express even adjacent discomfort at some of the scenes and themes helped show just how rare and powerful Aster’s critique of modern American masculinity vis a vis his inclusion of full frontal male nudity is in mainstream film. It was such a fun treat to watch a horror film that takes place primarily in bright—often blinding—light and does not rely on nighttime and shadows to show us the darker sides of humanity (especially following a film like Hereditary and its dark palette).