MIDSOMMAR is the new one from HEREDITARY writer/director Ari Aster. It’s about a group of drugged out (and in some cases horny) young people running into some craziness during a summer vacation, so hopefully nobody will pretend it’s not a horror movie.
It’s very much in the vein of Aster’s first one, because it has weird and ridiculously detailed cult rituals, meticulously designed sets and camera moves, slow ominous dread building to big/crazy/gory payoffs uncharacteristic of modern arthouse horror, superb acting performances, an emphasis on tense relationships and heavy emotions, and an undercurrent of dark, uncomfortable humor that got a bunch of big laughs in the audience I saw it with (though, if HEREDITARY is any indication, people will tell me I imagined that). So it’s a similar template, but a very different palette, because there’s nothing supernatural and there’s not much darkness. It takes place in an old-timey village in Sweden where everyone wears white, it’s sunny all day, and the nights are short and never get all the way dark.
The story starts in a gloomy U.S. winter, when a young woman named Dani (Florence Pugh, THE COMMUTER) is worried about a strange message she got from her bipolar sister. She calls her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor, TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION), who exasperatedly convinces her she’s being too dramatic, and seems to be on the verge of following his buddy Mark (Will Poulter, THE REVENANT)’s pleas to dump her. But it turns out she was right to be concerned – a horrible tragedy takes her family from her, and suddenly we jump to June and she’s still spending her days in sweatpants crying into Christian’s lap. Not only has he begrudgingly stayed with her – he sort of by accident ends up bringing her on a trip to Sweden with his anthropology-class-bros Mark, Josh (William Jackson Harper, PATERSON), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who has invited them all to a festival at his ancestral home, which they expect to be sort of a hippie commune. And sure enough they’re given psychedelics before they even put their luggage down.
I love the set up because it’s emotionally messy and awkward in a very true way. I think Christian is a jerk and a terrible boyfriend without the patience or empathy Dani needs, but I also relate to him a little. I definitely had times in my life when I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to help with the things my girlfriends were going through. He really thinks he cares about her, but he’s self-absorbed and wants the hard part to be over so he can do happy young people shit. And that’s where he’s at before Dani has to deal with a crushingly traumatic tragedy. He’s completely unqualified to support her. They’re bad for each other, they should’ve broken up before, but he’s just nice enough to think he’d be an asshole to dump her while she’s in this state.
And Mark is a bigger asshole than Christian, but it’s understandable that he’s bummed to hear at the last minute “oh yeah, my girlfriend who you never liked is coming along on our Euro-trip, because she’s too sad to leave at home.” Poulter blew me away as a racist psycho cop in Kathryn Bigelow’s DETROIT, but he’s more fun to watch as a funny dickbag. And I like the detail that he vapes. There’s something comical about him hanging out in this idyllic village just wanting to get high and get laid. He actually wanted the trip to go through Stockholm, where I’m sure he would’ve ended up in HOSTEL IV or something.
I don’t blame Dani for not knowing she’s ruining their trip, because she’s taking them at their word that they want her to come. Pelle I think is even sincere about it. And it’s a good opportunity to get the hell away from her regular life and try to make a change. Pugh is so good at showing Dani’s breakdowns and her efforts to communicate and be understanding and forgiving of shitty things Christian does. We can see that she’s giving him way too much slack. Even when she’s going through this bad time she has to call and talk him into hanging out, tell him “I’m so lucky to have you,” then call a friend worried that she’s scaring him away.
I’ve read that this is a long movie, but it didn’t seem too long to me. If anything, the length mimics the feeling of endless vacation days with no responsibilities, just laying around in the sun, getting high between a succession of odd local activities you’re invited on. The American visitors stay at a little bit of an ironic distance, reluctant to fully participate in the traditions (though Mark and Christian start interviewing people and trying to find out more for thesis purposes). Some of it’s fun, but then they have to sleep with the whole village in a big open temple where a baby cries all night, and they get pushed into watching things they’re not comfortable with, and guilted if they’re judgmental about it. There’s some scary shit, but the people who do it have no idea they’re bad guys. They make a strong argument for their belief system.
I wasn’t sure I’d be so won over by MIDSOMMAR. When I first saw the trailer I had a kneejerk “yeah, I saw THE WICKER MAN too” reaction. There are definitely similarities to that original movie about a man trapped by a weird folksy cult, but it never feels like just a riff on it. Other movies that came to mind at certain points were THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and EYES WIDE SHUT, and a friend brought up ANNIHILATION, which hadn’t occurred to me but made perfect sense. Thinking of it now, there’s a little bit of CANDYMAN in the way that some of the protagonists are looking at these people’s lives through an academic lens, clueless to their intrusion and the danger they’re in. But they’re less ethical than Virginia Madsen’s character was so I’m less forgiving of them. There’s also a part (it involves a bear) that made me wonder if it could be a reference to one of the most beloved parts of the Nic Cage version of WICKER MAN. Either way, hats off to that scene.
I love writing and talking about horror movies, but it’s safer to write about old ones. We can disagree about those in peace, but new ones can be weirdly divisive. Experience tells me there will be people viscerally angry at MIDSOMMAR for reasons I won’t be able to relate to, and we won’t even agree what the tone or pacing or emotions are like, as if we saw totally different movies. To me it has a sense of fun and entertainment that the dry, quiet movies like THE WITCH (strategically, arguably successfully) don’t, but I’m sure some will claim otherwise.
You can probly tell I’m dreading whatever the argument will be. So many of us have our identities wrapped up in being horror fans, and we get territorial and grumpy about what counts as “real” horror, what horror is supposed to be or not supposed to be, who’s supposed to like it or not like it, who’s supposed to make it. And I’ve been there, you’ve all seen me there, but I’m bored of that shit. I want there to be a wide variety of styles and voices and approaches in horror. There is room for cheesy/lowbrow and “elevated”/”pretentious” and in-betweens and weird combinations that don’t fit easily on that spectrum. Nobody’s gonna like all of them, but what’s the point in getting very mad about any of them?
It’s no skin off the ass-shaped face of the guy from SOCIETY if you can’t stand this particular approach to horror. If you’re one of those people who only respects movies of some specific past era and never likes anything new, then obviously you are doomed to be complaining for eternity. The rest of us are gonna be fine. Something else came along after PG-13 teen meta-slashers, J-horror remakes, “torture porn,” “nu horror,” Platinum Dunes remakes, found footage and ghost movies, and something will come along after A24. Horror will keep shambling along.
To me MIDSOMMAR has a unique flavor, but it lives up to its responsibility to deliver on a normal horror movie level. It has characters to root for and against, with some interesting ambiguities, it made me laugh and wince and laugh-wince, it surprised me, it made me emotional, it took me on a ride, it ended on an unexpected but perfect note, it seems better and better the more I think about it. I kinda loved this one.
BIG SPECIFIC READ ONLY AFTER THE MOVIE SPOILER SECTION
Maybe I’m naive but I didn’t see the ending coming at all. And I suppose when I say “the ending” I could mean that Dani is not the final victim (our knowledge of THE WICKER MAN used against us), but mostly I just mean her big smile. My first reaction was that she was happy because she was free of her drip of a boyfriend. I saw it as almost a punchline that she was given the choice to kill either her own boyfriend or random guy who is part of this cult and believes in it. Ordinarily that should be an easy, if upsetting choice, and the idea that she might have to think about it is really funny to me. I kinda thought they were gonna cut to the credits on that thought. Just hesitating would be cold enough but apparently she says yeah, take my boyfriend!
(Aster has said the script was written in response to a bad break up – notice that “Dani Ardor” even kinda sounds like “Ari Aster” – so I feel bad for whoever that was. Yes, he wants to sew you up in a bear corpse and burn you alive. But there are other fish in the sea!)
Of course it quickly occurred to me that it was about more than ditching Christian. This whole process, this weird barbaric exploration of the life cycle, really has helped Dani with her grief, as Pelle said it would. It’s like THE GAME, sort of! This whole insane thing she’s been through has worked as some kind of unorthodox therapy. That made me wonder about the details of Pelle’s backstory. Knowing it’s a horror movie you assume from the beginning that he has nefarious motives, but in the end I think it’s fair to say he’s sincere. He said he lost both of his parents, so he must’ve gone through this himself, it must’ve helped him with his loss, and that’s why he’s so evangelical about it. Then again, he said they died in a fire. That could mean they were sacrificed!
Maybe I’m wrong about that though, because he says this festival only happens once every 90 years. I’m a little confused about that bit. They all seem very familiar with how it all works. And people must turn 72 more often than every 90 years. I’m not sure how it works, but it’s intriguing. In HEREDITARY I sort of liked that I couldn’t make sense of all of it and was okay leaving it like that. Here I’m more curious.
(I’d also like to go back to that drawing at the beginning that surely illustrates what happens in the movie, but you can’t really decipher it without context.)
I like how whenever someone is, say, screaming in pain because they jumped off a cliff but didn’t die, or because they’re on fire, that the other people mimic their screams. That was one thing that made me think of TEXAS CHAIN SAW, but when those guys did it it was a form of taunting. I might’ve thought that at first here, but in the scene where Dani falls to her knees bawling and the other girls gather around her and repeat all the sounds she makes, it seemed like a nice thing to do. She has lost her entire family. They talk about making people members of their family. Her boyfriend and friends are not very supportive. Pelle talks about having someone to “lean on.” Here is this group of people sharing in her pain, echoing it, perhaps amplifying it so she can get it all out, or spreading it around to dilute it. I doubt this is a good form of therapy. But I get it. I can see why it might be helpful to her.
Funniest part in my opinion: Ingemar (Hampus Hallberg) apologetically admitting that maybe he should’ve been more clear that they were going to watch old people jump off a cliff and get their heads smooshed by a giant hammer. And the annoyed “what the hell is their problem?” looks that some of the villagers give Connie and Simon (Ellora Torchia and Archie Madekwe) for freaking out about it.
But the biggest laugh for the whole audience was when Christian was fucking the little sister and that lady leaned in and started singing to him. Possibly surpassed by the subsequent butt-pumping shot.
Yeah, this one’s quite a journey.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.