(for disturbing ritualistic violence and grisly images, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use, and strong language)
Released: July 3, 2019
Runtime: 140 minutes
Directed by: Ari Aster
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter, Ellora Torchia, Archie Madekwe, Gunnel Fred
If ever a filmmaker produced movies that lived up to the name of this web site, it’s writer/director Ari Aster.
For the second time is as many tries, Aster has crafted a masterpiece of horror cinema that I cannot unsee or, in good conscience, recommend to anyone. Like Hereditary before it Midsommar is that deviant, yet that well-made.
Nevertheless, despite that bravura skill, I can’t embrace Aster’s sophomore film in the same way I could his first. Hereditary was a gut-wrenching tale of one family’s generational sin, told through a parable of demonic oppression. It maintained its metaphor all the way through to its chilling end, with astute insight and provocative parallels.
Midsommar starts out with the same purpose, presenting an allegory for toxic dating relationships, of two people who stay together but shouldn’t, told through a parable of dark Mephistophelian ritual. The difference here, though, is that Midsommar insidiously drops that parable to the wayside. As it does, Aster goes all in on his debauched occultic fetish. Midsommar loses its purpose as it succumbs to its perversity.
Dani is a young woman burdened by troubling family issues and tragedy. Her boyfriend Christian goes through the dutiful motions of support but his heart isn’t in it. He wants to break up but the time is never right. Dani rightfully demands better from him but then, inevitably, she apologizes for doing so, pleading for reconciliations when he doesn’t even demand them. He’s passive-aggressive. She’s co-dependent. It’s not pretty.
However, Dani and Christian are more than simple archetypes of dysfunction. They’re both smart people who, despite their tensions and shortcomings, genuinely mean well for each other; they just can’t adequately meet each others needs. Because of their issues they often treat each other poorly (mostly him of her), but they’re really just two normal people who bring out the worst in each other (masked by strained civility) that have no business being together.
Their dynamic is confronted unexpectedly on a trip to Sweden where the two join three of Christian’s college friends for a private Nordic summer solstice festival. One of the friends, Pelle, grew up in this the rural community that holds the festival; it’s an extremely rare event that takes place only once every ninety years.
What initially seems innocent enough in a hippie sort of way (things are kickstarted with hallucinogens) suddenly becomes grisly when one of the solstice rituals turns deadly. The young Americans are shaken and horrified by this abhorrent expression of dying with dignity, but the natives ensure them that each participant partakes in these acts willfully, joyfully, and (as necessary) sacrificially.
Film Twitter has collectively agreed: it’s all really f—– up.
As profanely glib an assessment as that may seem, it’s as fitting and substantive a descriptor as one could use for what’s going on here, portrayed in gratuitous gore, psychological violence, and a vile, tribal sexual rites.
In steady progression, things go from gruesome to depraved to sadistic as these blindsided friends unwittingly sink into the trap that’s been set for them. The whole movie descends congruently, trying to drag our souls along with it. There isn’t a single moment where Aster doesn’t have us completely rapt in abject trauma, of both the mental and spiritual sort.
Between Hereditary and this, Aster seems to have an eerily complex grasp on how demonic activity works, not just in its procedures but in its corrupt nature, and how that deceptive, savage evil manifests itself in rituals, in symbols, and even in its very rhythms.
Aster’s aesthetic is impressively detailed. Everything has intention and meaning, and every element (sets, costumes, props, the collective palette, and the camera frame itself) is designed with precise calculation. The soundscape creates a visceral, guttural reaction as well. Imagine a Wes Anderson movie that is repulsively warped, and that’s Midsommar.
Aster doesn’t even need to use a word, just the most primal things (all in broad daylight, no less), yet even in dialogue there is metaphor. Example: as the American friends stroll past a caged grizzly, one says, “So we’re just going to ignore the bear?” That literal question is the essence of the film’s themes, and the very problem at the heart Dani and Christian’s relationship; their simmering toxicity is one big bear that they just keep ignoring.
As Dani, Florence Pugh invests, sacrifices, and pours as much of herself into the role as any actress possibly could; it’s a comprehensive portrayal of a broken young woman, psychological and spiritual, from every scream to every nuance. The rest of the cast is impressive, too, but this is Pugh’s film.
Unfortunately, Aster goes from giving his talented ensemble rich characters that they can explore to treating them like pawns, not using Dani and Christian’s dysfunctional relationship as a metaphorical through-line (as he did for Toni Collette and Alex Wolff in Hereditary) but simply as a pretext for the grotesque. Aster is as accomplished an auteur as any filmmaker working today, but this is just sick.
As the final horror crescendos over a triumphant (rather than terrifying) score, one starts to wonder if Aster actually realizes this is supposed to be just a metaphor. Or, like those devious Swedes who lured their young prey into their vulgar, monstrous sadism, has Aster actually lured us into his own degeneracy, sacrificing our spiritual well-being upon his wanton altar, and – in that final moment – celebrating his cunning victory.