Warning: Spoilers ahead. We warned you.
Sitting in that movie theater, I had no clue what kind of journey we were about to experience. For my co-host Samael and myself, Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary was a confusing and shocking dive into the horrors experienced by a crumbling suburban family. Ultimately, the film made both of our top 10 lists for 2018, but it was a gradual process of acceptance. With Aster’s sophomore effort Midsommar, we eschew the claustrophobic darkness of Hereditary and travel to hallucinatory prairies filled with sunlight, but the unsettling nature of what’s happening on-screen lingers.
I say that, but Midsommar begins with a family tragedy that already seems very indicative of the director’s work; unlike Hereditary, where the grief and sadness fester and culminate in a riveting third act, Midsommar’s tragedy sets up the story of Dani Ardor – played with fearsome fervor by Florence Pugh – and then tricks the audience by fading into the background. The maturity in Aster’s writing shines with this aspect of the film as Dani’s loss of her parents and sister never really goes away, but quite literally pops up when she feels most vulnerable. The efficacy of this constant element drives the entire film and Dani’s character development, and it is one of many positive things I can say about Midsommar.
On the surface, Dani’s strained relationship with her boyfriend Christian – played by Jack Reynor – is the focus of this film, and it’s very well done. The dialogue feels legitimate and we can easily feel the tension between these characters, amplified by powerful performances from both actors; I’m hesitant to say that Reynor may almost be the star here, as I’m unsure if he was really just acting so disinterested and distant the entire time or if that’s just what his face looks like. Will Poulter, Vilhelm Blomgren, and William Jackson Harper round out an excellent supporting cast that nail their character dynamics and lines with unerring professionalism.
All of these elements blossom under perpetual sunlight that makes the events of Midsommar somehow seem even more disturbing. Perhaps it is the fact that we should feel safe, that we should realize the dangers in front of us when illuminated – the gorgeous and inviting set design helps in this way – but when you lower your defenses and become vulnerable, as the characters in this movie did, even a waking nightmare is possible in broad day. I commend Aster’s ambition in blending nearly two-and-a-half hours of daytime with drug-fueled insanity, and it works, especially because you never actually see the sun. Characters disappear from sight and mind during the multi-day pagan festival, and despite the visibility we never really see anybody die until we actually see them quite dead later. These characteristics actually work in tandem as we continue to be assured that nothing is wrong while the film not-so-subtly provides hints that something more menacing is unfolding (period-blood-cocktail anyone?).
Some people will say that this film isn’t scary and it isn’t, not as you might expect, anyway. You won’t be forced to predict jump scares with Midsommar or witness pure terror, but the atmosphere is still dense with misdirection and a creeping dread that is only given more weight through the sound design and fantastic visual effects. I also have to commend the editing and consequently the pacing, which did well in making an otherwise long movie feel just as long as it needed to be – everything felt like it had a place.
At the end of the day, Midsommar is not perfect, but there is also little that I can criticize about it; hardcore genre fans and casual viewers may be more confused than anything while attempting to connect the threads, but this is certainly an artistic project that demands your full attention. If you’re not engrossed and disturbed by this film then you may be the former type of fan and have a penchant for only the most extreme horror, and I pity the fact that you won’t be able to fully enjoy this transcendent journey. I imagine that it will be discussed for a long time.
Barnabas’s Score: 4.5/5
A stylish and mind-bending experience, Midsommar delivers shocks and visuals unlike any movie of recent memory. A struggling young woman named Dani goes on a trip with her boyfriend and some classmates to Sweden to help her forget the stress of her sister’s suicide and the murder of her parents. Upon arrival, the ambiance is obviously eerie. We are told that in the little pagan commune, even night time isn’t really fully night time. Dani and her friends arrive in Sweden at their friend Pelle’s family’s secluded commune and take some psychedelic mushrooms, proceeding to “trip balls,” setting the tone of things to come. Dani has a bad experience and is reminding herself to stay calm all while being reminded of the terrible event that occurred in her life previously.
Throughout the movie, we see the deterioration of Dani and her boyfriend Christian’s relationship. Subtle things like not remembering her birthday, checking out a young girl, etc, lead Dani to continuously untrustingly glance at Christian in suspicion throughout the movie. We also see hints at things to come in the film through imagery scattered across the commune, such as pubic hair being placed in food for a love spell, a bear burning, and so forth.
The group of college kids decides to join the commune in a special ritual, unbeknownst to them, where the Matriarch and Patriarch of the commune commit a brutal suicide by jumping off of a very high cliff. This deeply disturbs Dani, triggering the terrible memories of her past. Christian decides that, like Josh, he also wants to write a thesis on the same subject matter, except specifically about the commune they are currently visiting. Josh tells Christian to get his own idea for a thesis, but Christian refuses.
We see that Christian and Josh ask one of the leaders of the commune to have their permission to write about their Midsommar experience, and they are given permission if only they do not disclose the location or the name of those involved. They both agree, albeit to the annoyance of Josh.
While sleeping, a red-haired girl with a fancy for Christian, named Maja, leaves an object under Christian’s bed. Josh later finds out that that object is used for a love spell. Later, we see the pubic hair spell come into play. Christian consumes food in which pubic hair has been placed inside, reminiscent of the image from earlier in the film. Josh tries to enter the sacred building where they keep the holy texts written by one of the genetically impaired peoples, only to be ambushed and killed by someone wearing their friend Mark’s face.
We later come to a point where there is a sacred meal being served to everyone in preparation for the crowning of the May Queen. Christian is forced to consume a psychedelic substance before said dinner, and Dani ends up winning the May Queen competition. As the dinner progresses, we see Maja giving Christian provocative looks, and we see Christian debating in his head whether or not to go along. We once again see Dani’s suspicions rise as she takes multiple suspicious glances at Christian. At this point, the atmosphere in the movie had gotten extremely uncomfortable. We see something is going to happen, but what unfolds is even more disturbing than what we would have imagined.
Christian ends up having sex with Maja and allegedly impregnating her during a sex ritual. When the new May Queen, Dani, arrives, she spies on Christian and sees him cheating on her with Maja. She proceeds to burst into tears and lets out multiple cries of anguish, to which the women of the commune also imitate her and let out the same cries, symbolizing the unity of the people of the commune since now Dani is the May Queen.
After the dust settles, Dani is to choose the sacrifice for the celebration. She chooses Christian, obviously. Pelle’s brother volunteers along with another random person. Christian is dressed up in bearskin and tied down in the building that we were told at the beginning no one was allowed to enter in. The building is then burned down in slow motion with the dead bodies of the Americans inside, along with Christian, Pelle’s brother and the random. As Dani takes her seat on the throne as the May Queen, she proceeds to smile as the people inside are burned to a crisp.
Overall, the constant daylight added to the eeriness of the movie, as did the underlying plot of the commune. I believe they knew Dani would be the new May Queen the whole time, probably orchestrated by Pelle, as we see he has a thing for Dani throughout the whole movie. He most likely saw that Christian was neglecting her and had a thing for her, so he decided to take her for himself. It makes you wonder, how many people did Pelle do this to? Or was this the first time?
I believe just like Hereditary, this movie is an embodiment of the issue of mental health. Grief and depression being the two main themes. The daylight aspect is important because even though there is daylight, you can feel that something sinister is going on. Just like when one experiences depression; it does not matter how bright it is outside nor how many things you’re doing to distract yourself, deep down those dark feelings and thoughts are still there beneath the surface. Also, we see the theme of communal unity throughout the movie. For example, when Dani is crying and hyperventilating in disbelief of Christian cheating on her, the women of the commune join her in grieving, going as far as to imitate her cries of grief. Overall, a deeply disturbing movie and my favorite so far of 2019.
Samael’s Score: 4.5/5
If you have not listened to our exclusive spoiler-free review of Midsommar, listen to it now on Sports Radio Detroit.