Who’s ready to feel deeply disturbed and unsettled by an expert filmmaker and a truly fantastic performance from a young actress?
Midsommar is a 2019 folk horror film written and directed by Ari Aster. This is only his second feature after the terrifically horrifying Hereditary. This film follows Dani, played by Florence Pugh, a young woman trying to cope with a horrible family incident. Her gaslighting, neglectful, indecisive, little puke of a boyfriend Christian, played by Jack Reynor, is going on a trip to Sweden with some friends. He doesn’t tell her about it, and then half heartedly invites her along. Little do they know what horrors this trip has in store for them.
Upon their arrival, they go to their friend Pelle’s tiny remote village. One character describes it as a hippie commune. Pelle describes it as a tight knit community with special rites and traditions. It’s the summer solstice celebrations that are drawing Christian and his friends. Just how far these traditions go is where the horror comes in.
Just like with Hereditary, Aster centers the whole film around one powerhouse performance. Florence Pugh is spectacular here. She goes through a harrowing ordeal in this movie. She plumbs the deepest depths of despair. She climbs to the heights of multiple panic attacks. She conveys the anxiety and insecurities of her character as well as the slow growth into confidence. Florence Pugh is stellar. If this wasn’t a horror film, she would have been nominated for an Oscar for this performance.
As for the other characters, Christian is the worst kind of person. He’s indecisive and carrels toward the feelings of others. His girlfriend of four years endures an unbearable loss, and he just sort of puts his arms around her and waits for her to stop crying. He claims he wants to break up with her but worries he might want her back someday. So he keeps her on the hook just in case. He forgets its her birthday. He tricks her into apologizing to him after he lies to her. He sucks, and Jack Reynor does a great job of making him suck without diving headfirst into comic villain. He feels like a real person not a stereotype or cardboard cutout. the rest of the friend group is pretty much stock types. The intellectual and the horn dog. The horn dog in particular has some hilarious lines and some laugh out loud moments. Which is a nice way to break up the unrelenting unease the movie creates.
Ari Aster is in full control of this movie. The way he uses every cinematic element to create tension and unease is spectacular. He holds shots for longer than he should. We are waiting for the edit to give us some relief, but he denies us that relief. By using long extended takes he wields the edit like a weapon. The sun never fully sets in this part of Sweden at this time of year, so there is no relief there either. It feels unnatural and unrelentingly bright. He also uses subtle special effects that will make you feel truly uneasy as the backgrounds seem to dance and move unnaturally.
The movie is gruesome and there is blood, but it’s not particularly violent or gory. There are two bludgeonings in the movie, but everything else takes place off screen. What we get to see is the results and the implications are left up to our imaginations. This makes it far more disturbing, but it also makes it far more mild. Based purely on what we see in the movie, it’s not that hardcore.
I’m going to get into specifics here. There will be spoilers. I am about to give away the secrets of the movie. Prepare yourself… Basically, the small community sustains itself by adhering to ancient customs. These involve ritual human sacrifices. The community believes that only through death can their way of life go on. They have lured Christian and his friends to their village to use them as sacrifices. One by one they all disappear only to show up at the very end in various forms of dismemberment. The horn dog follows a girl off screen and then shows up again after he has been murdered, skinned, and stuffed with straw. We see the result. We don’t see how he got there. Our imaginations fill in the blanks. It’s horrifying, but only in our minds.
More spoilers. The ending of the film is weirdly a happy one. Dani spends the film in deep grief. Her parents and sister die in the opening minutes of the film. Her boyfriend is emotionally manipulative and doesn’t respond to her needs. In the commune, she finds a group of people who accept her and celebrate her. The community has a habit of taking on the emotions of anyone of their members. When someone is in pain, they all cry out. When someone laughs they all laugh. When Dani is shrieking in pain and anguish, a group of women shriek alone with her. They all accept what she feels and feel it for themselves. In the end, Christian is sewn into a bear carcass and burned alive as part of a ritual. Does he deserve this? No. No one does, but does his demise create an emotional release that allows Dani to be free of her crippling grief? Yes, and that makes for a happy ending. Our heroine wanted to find peace from her internal struggle. She achieves that in the end. Christian had to burn alive to get there, but she did get there. That is our hero triumphing. That is a character finding closure and emotional support. It’s weird and extreme, but it is a happy ending. This is my second viewing. The first time I was much more conflicted about the ending and what it meant. This time, I was all on board the Dani train. I see this ending has a complicated but happy conclusion.
The film is disturbing, but is it scary? I was not scared during this movie. I felt like the ground was shifting underneath my feet. I felt the impact of the director’s unsettling style, but I can’t say I was ever scared while watching this. I was intrigued and engaged by Dani’s journey. I was upset by the terrible implications of what I saw, but I was never truly scared during this movie. It taps into the intellectual side not the emotional side. It’s a really nice change of pace compared to all the ghosts and jump scares I’ve seen.
I love Florence Pugh’s performance. I love the cinematography. I love how it upends expectations and tears the rug out from under us at every turn. I’d like to know who hurt Ari Aster and what trauma he’s trying to work though with these movies because they are brutal at times. All in all, it is my cup of tea. A