Prepare for a Trip to Your Summer Ceremonial Horror Destiny
DIRECTED BY ARI ASTER/2019
Dani (Florence Pugh, a powerhouse) is in a toxic relationship with Christian (Jack Reynar) who has a group of even more toxic male friends surrounding him. Christian despises Dani but is too much of a coward to do anything about it. Instead he manipulates her and wastes her time. His friends want him to dump her, not out of any fairness to her, but rather because they find her to be an annoying pain and wish Christian was more available.
Inconveniently for Christian, Dani finds out her whole family is dead after her mentally ill sister pulls off a mind-searing homicide/suicide. He tolerates her just enough not to compound onto her pain (quite the hero) so instead of dumping her, he invites her to a commune to Sweden, to join him and his buddies, as they spend days with the locals for their traditional midsummer celebration. He hopes she says no. He assures his friends that she’ll say no. Except, unfortunately, she says yes.
Once in Sweden, things start off immediately weird. Hallucinogens the moment they arrive. A sun that will not set. Members of the community laughing and mocking them. Members of the community freaking out when they urinate on a spiritual burial tree.
The Americans, joined by a couple Brits, know something is up when they witness a suicide pact by two elder members of the community. To say that director Ari Aster can direct the violence of horror well would be an understatement. Like a character’s head coming off in his prior film, Hereditary, when the characters in Midsommar land from that cliff, it is in the most brutal, bone-crunching way.
Slowly the audience realizes that no one is getting out of this nightmare. Long before the characters realize it. Wicker Man is an influence on this movie, and like that movie, the terror comes from a cynicism that the audience shares about the world. In Wicker Man, the police officer has a wholesome disposition to how life works. You see the destruction of him coming, even if you are still surprised by the details and extent as to how it goes. In Midsommar, again your cynicism detects something bad coming. I’m sure that the idea of knowing they’re in a horror movie while this is just life to the characters helps, but the weight of the inevitable to suffocating.
And this is where Aster is truly a master of the craft. He captures moments in the movie that will haunt you. In reality, very little screen time is filled with anything violent, much less terrifying. But it always happens in such a logically inexplicable way that your mind cannot wrap around it. It’s brutal. Haunting. A plot revelation. But also something you can’t process.
It’s really hard to figure out if Midsommar is scary. It’s unsettling, which is a type of terror that sticks with me. But I considered it a pullback, in terms of horror, from Hereditary. Yet I’ve heard from others that they cannot sleep at night after watching it.
I’ve also heard a lot of talk about Midsommar being a hard left turn from Hereditary. But I would argue to the contrary. Hereditary was about family and the illnesses that run deep in them. Midsommar is about the loss of family and the effects that can have on a person.
But both, ultimately, are about making the most out of the family you have. What happens to Dani is corrosive. Nothing that can happen in Sweden can compare. But that is where the hopefulness comes in with the beauty of family. The fluidity of family cannot be easily defined. And when you lose someone close, you count on who you think will be there for you. But, as someone who has lost someone close, it surprises you who is there and who isn’t. Not in a net negative or positive way, per se. But someone makes the extra effort and it surprises you. While others, you, learn, aren’t who you thought they were.
And ultimately, Midsommar is a tale of terror, wrapped in hope, though you may have to squint a little to find it. But when you’ve gone through a life-altering, horrifying event, like losing your whole family, you’ll see hope where you can find it.