I have no idea about this one.
Okay, I have some, but this movie makes me feel like I know nothing. Jon Snow and I have that in common.
Welcome back, dear reader! Who’s in for a psychedelic, folksy Alice in Wonderland mind ****? Because Christ. This flick is not playing around. This viewing marks the second time I’ve seen Midsommar. The first was opening weekend back in 2019. My main takeaway then was how little I understood. It’s not that I couldn’t follow the plot or anything, but the film is so dense with imagery and implication. Forget a fine-tooth comb. You need a rake to sort through this stuff! It plays with ambiguity much like The Empty Man, but they’re not the same. This one is a thinker—no disrespect to the casual viewer, but this movie doesn’t play to broad appeal. Midsommar is a very particular film with specific sensibilities. If you’re looking for escapist horror, this isn’t the movie for you. If you’re looking to get weird, and I mean really weird, then welcome!
Following a tragic loss, Dani (Florence Pugh) joins her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends on a backpacking trip to Scandinavia to partake in a rural Swedish commune’s midsummer festival. But rather than escape her pain, Dani instead finds herself in the grip of an increasingly sinister pagan cult whose ambitions are anything but idyllic. What is it with this blog and pagans? I’m starting to get a bad feeling…
That’s the nutshell, but there’s much more happening on and beneath the surface. This is writer-director Ari Aster’s follow-up to his smashing debut, 2018’s Hereditary—a genuinely horrifying flick that deals with similar themes. If you’ve seen Hereditary and dug what that movie was doing, I think you’ll appreciate this one. While Hereditary is rich in substance, it wasn’t exactly an audience hit. CinemaScore is a service that polls theatre-going audiences to gauge a movie’s appeal. A+ to A- is where you’d want to be at, B+ isn’t too bad, but anything below that could spell trouble for a movie’s box office legs. Opening weekend audiences gave Hereditary a D+. Yikes. Still, the film managed to make a buck (relative to its budget), scored big with critics and generated a fanbase for Aster. He became an instantly buzzed-about filmmaker, so going into Midsommar, curiosity was high. I loved Hereditary, so I was all in on Midsommer. Now here we are, two years and two viewings later, and I’m still working it out. I’m a late bloomer, y’all.
Midsommer is entirely outside the realm of what you come to expect from a horror movie. It’s two and a half hours long, the sex and nudity are far from sexy, and it takes place almost exclusively during the day. And it’s that final aspect that stands out most frankly. It’s textbook to rely on shadows and darkness to evoke a mood, but staging your horror movie in the sun-bleached daylight with nay a nook nor cranny to hide a ghoulie? That takes guts. But that also adds a layer of terror. Out in the middle of nowhere under an uncompromising Swedish sun, there is no place to run, nowhere to hide. The lack of privacy leaves you more exposed and open to the hurt. Sometimes it’s not about what the genre is but how you use it.
Aster has an interest in portraying mental illness, relational problems and grief. Both of his movies deal with these topics, using horror as an allegorical backdrop. Here, we find our lead character, Dani, suffering both in romance and family. Her relationship with Christian is a co-dependant mess. She needs an emotionally available and comforting partner, but Christian is the type of guy who can’t be upfront about anything. He’s been wanting out of their relationship for a while but doesn’t have the stones to end it. Things only become worse for Dani when her sister murders their parents via carbon monoxide poisoning then kills herself. This is the film’s catalyst and where we find Dani at the start. Christian can’t break up with her now, right? So we have two people horrendously unsuited for one another together in the worst situation imaginable. Dani’s lack of support leaves her open to the machinations of the Harga cult. It’s a bad romance blown up to the extreme, and the film brilliantly portrays how being with the wrong person at the wrong time can leave you vulnerable. Because Dani isn’t a hollow horror movie trope, she’s a psychology major and very much aware of her surroundings and the people there. But she isn’t in a place emotionally where she can back herself up. While Dani constantly questions the Harga’s disturbing practices, the people she’s with aren’t with her. Tragically, it’s the Harga people who manage an emotional connection. It’s a riveting demonstration of how an intelligent, reasonable person can be indoctrinated.
Awards for art are so-so, but the fact that the Oscars didn’t recognize Florence Pugh only further proves the Academy’s bias toward genre films. I heard this elsewhere (I can’t remember where), but I seconded the notion: Florence Pugh is in God Mode in this movie. To say she’s devastatingly good would be an understatement. And the work must have been excruciating. It’s exhausting seeing this woman shift from gut-wrenching torment to suffocating panic attacks. It doesn’t even feel like you’re watching a performance at times. It’s so candid. There are scenes of Dani crying with such intensity it made me uncomfortable. You’re watching actual suffering. That’s how raw and honest Pugh is.
There’s also a willingness in Dani’s personality that relates to an overall theme of openness and connection. There is innate friction between the outsiders and the Harga people. Christian, his friends, Mark (Will Polter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper), have no genuine appreciation for the Harga’s way of life. They each have an ulterior motive for being there: Christian is trying to escape his relationship, Josh is there solely for his studies, and Mark just wants to get laid. Neither of them sincerely connects with the Harga. They are a means to an end for them. It was destined for their fates to be what they are. Dani needs the type of availability that the Harga offers, making her the perfect mark for their tenets. The fear of being left behind overrides common sense.
Remember how I said this movie is weird? Let’s dig into that, because man, this movie is kooky. The film plays like a visual poem. There are a lot of odd images thrown at you that are easy to miss. It’s almost surreal at times. Psychedelics are used heavily throughout the movie, and the filmmakers did what I can only assume is a damn fine depiction of drug trips. There’s a lot of tree trunks waving, faces morphing, and flowers going through a kind of breathing motion. I don’t know; it upset me. It was honestly one of the most disturbing things in the movie for me. Yeah. It’s weird. The film does an excellent job of pairing disturbing imagery with character emotion. It’s an unnerving translation of mental turmoil, a collage of angst that digs under the skin and wiggles into your brain. It is not comfortable viewing.
I can’t say that I altogether get this movie, but I thoroughly dig the ambition. This and The Empty Man make for a trippy double feature: two bold, cerebral horror movies that place great trust in their audience. With Midsommer, the emphasis is not so much nihilistic as it is about the rejuvenation of life. The Harga cult put forward the appearance of a comely rustic village, but they are a dangerous folk. They see life as seasons in which a person exits existence at 72. You die and are born again in another; newborns take the name of a deceased. Life is a continuous cycle. The Harga way, however, is—well. You know the question, “If everyone jumped off a cliff, would you follow?” For the Harga, the answer is quite literally yes.
And therein lies the film’s ultimate struggle; a struggle for control—of gaining it and letting it go. The Harga fear death, as we all do, but cannot cope with its actuality. They feel that offering their lives to the gods maintains spiritual purity. They do so in the belief that their spirit will be recycled into a new life. It’s how they try to maintain control. But their thinking is misconstrued, a point emphasized with the shot of a Harga member, burning, screaming in agony. It’s a crack in the facade. There is no control; death has the final say. When it seems that Dani has finally gained control of her life, she succeeds only in losing it.
A special thank you to the Dead Meat Podcast’s Midsommar episode and FoundFlix’s explainer vid. They were a big help in my breaking ground on this review. And a very special thanks to all of you for joining me here! This will be the last review for the semester and possibly my last for this blog. I don’t know if I’ll be back in the fall, but if not, it’s been a pleasure writing for you! I hope you got something out of my squawks. It was fun, even when I wanted to pull my hair out. The ideas don’t count until you put them on paper, folks. Be well, dear reader. Stay safe, stay strong, and keep watching!
— Chris J. Patiño, Film Blogger.
Chris J. Patiño is a Lewis University graduate, having earned a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Journalism. Inspired at an early age by the late great Roger Ebert, he looks to follow in the footsteps of such acclaimed film critics and add his voice to the choir of movie discourse. He enjoys just about every film genre, but favorites include horror, sci-fi, and action. A lover of books, board games and the great outdoors, he spends most of his free time in worlds of fantasy and thought. Favorite filmmakers include Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Sam Raimi and Guillermo del Toro, with some favorite films being Rocky, The Thing, The Dark Knight, Star Wars: Ep. V- The Empire Strikes Back and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.