Have you ever wanted to put an end to something, but the timing was all wrong? Perhaps you should reconsider, as evidenced by Midsommar – the latest horror tragedy from director Ari Aster (Hereditary). As the year’s horror slate has been dominated by ghost stories and jump scares, Midsommar is here to remind us that humanity is still more frightening, destructive, and barbaric than any supernatural tale.
The plot centers around a group of douchebag college students. Christian (Jack Reynor) is in a years-long relationship with his girlfriend Dani (an outstanding Florence Pugh). He wants to break up with her for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, but seem to hinge mostly on her proclivity towards crying, and the lack of an interesting sex life. He’s urged to break up with her by his friends, most notably Mark (Will Poulter) who’s headed for the horror jackass Hall of Fame. But those plans are interrupted when an unspeakable tragedy befalls Dani. This prompts Christian to not only console her, but also to invite her to the guys’ summer trip to Sweden (much to almost everyone’s chagrin).
The trip in question is a summer solstice, back in the home country of Christian’s friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) who seems to be the only one actually glad to see Dani tag along. The main reason for the pilgrimage is so Christian’s friend Josh (William Jackson Harper) can complete his college thesis. Here’s my thesis – if you have to go backpacking through Europe, either bring your John Rambo starter pack or stay home.
Once we arrive in Sweden, there is a palpable tension amid the seemingly docile surroundings. Aster foreshadows this with a fun upside down shot as our protagonists pass the welcome sign – it’s a blunt, but still effective way of showing where our character’s worlds will end up. Pelle’s family and community appear to be friendly and free-spirited. There’s even drugs offered upon arrival, the perfect mouse trap for a gang of college kids! This leads to some great comedic moments during the eventual mushroom-inspired trips we get to witness, as well as some psychedelic effects. Making matters worse is the fact that the sun is out the entire time, except for supposedly a few brief hours per day.
Where this is all headed is quite cruel and bizarre, but it’s depicted with a deliberate voyeurism that let’s everyone in on the joke – Aster’s tale is as absurd as it is grief-stricken and it’s meant to be that way. You get the sense, even if Aster stumbled upon it rather than setting it as a goal from the start, that Midsommar is meant to showcase the agony of heartbreak and distress as juxtaposed by the farce that is human behavior. The screening I attended saw more laughter than most of this year’s comedies, with the exception of Booksmart, but this wasn’t an instance of “it’s so bad it’s good.”
It’s easy to tell that Aster isn’t taking things too seriously, which is evidenced whenever the audience is met with a purposely camp line, or when you see the Pagan locals doing Jazz Hands in the background after one of their weird rituals. The film earns it’s laughter as well as it’s silence during moments of empathy and dread. Which seems odd, but is actually apropos given that this is still a film where trauma and pain is the underlying narrative; the film runs us through a gamut of emotions rather than going all in on one, and it’s true to the effect of grief.
The tonal wire-act Aster pulls off is only made possible by his pitch perfect cast. Pugh, who is a star in the making, anchors everything and grounds this bizarre fable with her sincere, sympathetic performance even when she’s directed to blow out our eardrums with some robust wailing. Will Poulter is a delight as Mark, and honestly there’s not enough of him here. And Jack Reyner is so appropriately insincere and conniving; at least Mark is a douche up front, but Christian is the type of person who probably believes he’s actually a good person underneath. Their efforts combined with a solid supporting cast, unique visual flare, a haunting score, and Aster’s growing aptitude behind the camera make Midsommar a must see for horror fans and low budget aficionados alike. This is the type of pulpy fun that summer movies should be made of. Is it a bit indulgent? Absolutely, but at least the film has something worthwhile to be indulgent about.
With that being said, this is certainly a film that will not be for everyone. While the movie is a fun ride if you’re willing to go all in with it, some may be put off by the grotesque violence or the grim tone and sexual depravity. While this is unavoidable for such a uniquely flavored film, it’s important to consider the relationship between the literal and the metaphorical. The film features several creative decisions that may make certain characters or events wholly unlikable. But Midsommar isn’t about it’s literal happenings. It’s about the recovery of a broken soul, with the events depicted as simply a twisted manifestation of a more natural grieving process. And it’s what makes the film unexpectedly relatable. We’ve all been hurt, we’ve all been hurt by someone, and we’ve all committed some hurt.
It’s a universal cycle, not unlike the cycle of life our Swedish psychopaths use as the compass of their religion. Midsommar is a film that will lead many to question their relationships of past and present, while hopefully finding that elusive grief elixir known as clarity. We often put ourselves in bad relationships or situations when we know the alternative is what we really want; Dani and Christian eventually discover what they really desired all along. For if you stay out in the daylight this long, you’re bound to find some truths hidden in your soul.