Midsommar uses sunlight to expose deeper horrors
It’s a horror movie. It’s a comedy. It’s a break up drama. It’s a meditation on American ego. It’s a grueling tale of communication in decline. Above all else Midsommar is a movie of tone. Much like the impossible architectural geography of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, every aspect of this sophomore stunner is designed to unsettle in both subtle and aggressive ways, often at the same time. From slight visual distortions in the deeply textured design to a dizzying camera inversion which occurs just as our unlucky protagonists enter the mysterious commune, not an inch of film is wasted on something so pedestrian as “putting the audience at ease.” Now that we are in a post-Get Out world where horror is reclaiming the respect it’s been denied for so many years, a filmmaker like Ari Aster makes furthering the cause feel effortless. With Midsommar, there’s no question that this is a horror film. It’s not even worth debating. What is worth debating however, is what this is in addition to being a horror film. The density of story, theme, and design is stunning to say the least, making a cinematic experience that will thrill many, anger some, and upset all...which is undoubtedly the point.
The most apparent reference point is The Wicker Man (the 1973 version, not the 2005 version with Nic Cage and the bees). Aster’s film is similarly plotted, telling the tale of an outsider’s journey into the arms of a dubiously motivated community. It’s also similarly styled, using folk iconography to keep the audience in a constant state of not knowing who to trust. Midsommar is actively aware of this influence, and it effectively subverts every expectation a seasoned Wicker-fan could harbor. Just when you think you know what’s up...you do.
You just don’t know all that’s up.
The opening to Midsommar could easily stand alone as a disturbing short film in its own right. It’s also the only part of the film which takes the style of a more typical fright flick. It’s dark and moody much like the entirety of Aster’s previous film, Hereditary. Yes, Midsommar is a very dark movie indeed, but this the last of literal darkness we’ll see for the next two-plus hours. From here on out, it’s the sunniest, prettiest, most serene looking horror movie you’ll ever see. But looks, as they say, can be deceiving.
Florence Pugh is superb as Dani, a young woman stuck in a dead-end relationship with the detached Christian, played with frustrating accuracy by Jack Reynor. Christian has been courting the idea of a breakup for some time, a decision which is enthusiastically supported by his friends Josh, Mark, and Pelle (William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Vilhelm Blomgren). But when Dani suffers an unimaginable family tragedy, Christian doesn’t have it in his heart to cut ties with her just yet. To the chagrin of his buddies, he invites Dani to join them all on an extended trip to a rural town in Sweden. This town is inhabited by a folksy commune of flowery hippie types who are preparing for their annual mid-summer festival.
I’ll leave it at that.
The pacing of Midsommar is just faster than glacial, but that doesn’t mean that it’s boring. As viewers, the deal we signed was one of carnage and violence, so there’s no hiding what’s coming, at least in a broad sense. We know that the summer festival means bad things for our protagonists, but we don’t know what or why or how or when. Least of all, we don’t know what the proper course of action should be when shit starts to go down. It’s this constant unknowing — this slow unreeling of exponential discomfort — that is incongruent to the aesthetic warmth of what’s on screen. If Jaws made us afraid of the beach, and Psycho made us afraid of the shower, Midsommar could make us afraid of...existing.
Horror intermingles with humor as the variety of personalities amongst our central cast rubs up against foreign culture (Poulter, with his incessant vaping and a strong desire to spread his seed, gets the bulk of the laughs), but these clashes are hardly a concern when more malevolent forces come into play. We’ve all been on a vacation where we weren’t permitted to relax as much as planned, and Midsommar recreates that feeling to a T (or a tea, literally speaking). The miscommunications do pile up, but they only account for a small portion of the tension. It’s so taut at the outset that even the small moments of release only serve drop it from a 10 to maybe a 7.5. I’ll put it this way: about halfway through the film I had to pee. I managed to hold it until the end, but had I taken the trip, it would have made no difference at all. Each and every one of my clenchables remained clenched regardless of my bladder’s capacity.
It’s this which makes me disinclined to come down hard on any of the film’s weaker elements. Yeah, it’s very hard to buy Christian as an anthropology major. No, it’s not possible to understand the denser mythology on a single viewing. Yeah, a lot of the more haunting elements feel like they might exist in their own chilling vacuum, with no meaningful tie to the larger story. But these bits of unevenness made me uncomfortable in real time, and since they didn’t actively remove me from the film I am willing to give Aster the benefit of the doubt and call them purposeful. Add to that the insidiously haunting score from The Haxan Cloak and you’ve got yourself the most desirable 2.5 hour tummy ache in existence.
Aster has stated that he will likely move on from horror with his future work, and his latest gives me confidence that he’ll excel in any genre. It’ll be demented, whatever it is. With he and Jordan Peele knocking their sophomore efforts out of the park this year, each taking a derivative idea and making something wholly original out of it, the future of the genre is as bright as the Swedish sun. I can’t promise you’ll love Midsommar as much as I did, but I can guarantee that you will not forget it.
Midsommar is now playing in Philly area theaters.