Beyond jump scares and disturbing images, good horror movies tap into the terror of taboo and those dark places of consciousness where it feels unright to enter by social standards. Midsommar has been crowned “disturbing” in headlines and tweets. However, for all of its (long) build up to its finale, the poetic justice of what unfolds felt redemptive despite the confrontation with social morality, the order of nature and human feelings. Writer-director Ari Aster has followed up Hereditary with a movie that does away with the supernatural and looks at something more human and incriminating. The story takes the weak bonds of a faltering relationship between a man and woman and tests it against earthy but brutal paganism. Driving home points, early in the film, of the limits of traditional masculinity, Aster later demolishes it with all that is feminine, from Mother Earth to emotions that have rattled the film’s protagonist (Florence Pugh carrying the weight of the narrative with sympathetic soul) that have gone unacknowledged by her boyfriend (Jack Reynor).
Midsommar is beyond what some might expect from a follow-up to Hereditary, a movie that seemed more focused on building toward horrific climaxes overshadowing keen performances and a sensitivity to complex family dynamics. If you’re a gorehound, you might be disappointed that the most gruesome acts in Midsommar happen early on and are never topped. After that, many of the more terrifying acts that befall the victims happen off screen. This is more Rosemary’s Baby horror than Saw. The viewer is asked to invest in the conflicted emotional state of a young woman saddled with a recent family tragedy and her uninvested, unsympathetic boyfriend. This is where the film’s heart and soul lies. Key to this dynamic is Pugh’s sensitive performance as Dani, a college student with anxiety studying to be a psychotherapist. Aster places great emphasis on her, allowing the camera to linger long and close on her face when we first meet her worrying to Christian (Reynor) about her sister who won’t respond to her messages. The camera stays tight on her face for a long phone conversation, as she tangles with her distress and a fear of pushing away Christian, who tries to reassure her while having beers with the guys. His presence is but a voice transmitted through the receiver, as the camera never cuts away from Pugh. It establishes early on what an important performance she brings to her character.
Dani’s seemingly high maintenance emotional state has turned off Christian, and he prefers to confide with his guy friends that he plans to dump her rather than deal with her emotional needs. But when Dani’s intuition proves prophetic to a heart-shattering tragedy, he delays the break up. So afraid to shake her up further, he opens his guy’s trip to Sweden to her, much to the quiet displeasure of studious Josh (William Jackson Harper) and horny, dim comic relief Mark (Will Poulter). On the other hand, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), the Swedish exchange student who suggested the trip to his commune for a week-long pagan summer solstice celebration, seems quietly OK with it all. Pelle is not just presented as a sinister threat of mysterious intent. He is a threat to Christian’s unevolved sense of manhood. As it will turn out, Pelle is the man who comes from a place where nature and the crowning of the “May Queen” in a female-centric ritual have importance, so of course he is better equipped to deal with Dani’s feelings, which he demonstrates in a few instances of alone time with her.
You could nitpick at how the film could have been shortened. But the two intros at the beginning provide a smart start to build the anticipation for the group’s visit to the festival in Sweden, not to mention the revealing pregnant pauses by the men that highlight the awkwardness and discomfort about the sudden addition of Dani to the trip. For this writer, the familiar intensity of utter helplessness of Hereditary was nowhere to be found in Midsommar because of its sensitive portrayal of the feminine. That the men are disarmed by playing to their egos, again speaks to this narrative power.
Another powerful aspect of Midsommar is the clear representation of the powerful forces against these people — beyond that most of the horror happens during the brightness of the midnight sun. What worked to frighten in Hereditary was the mystery of the powers that the family at the heart of the story were up against. In Midsommar it’s very plain to see who is behind the sinister goings on. These believers in pagan traditions, not to mention Visigoth culture, look their victims straight in the eye. It’s so easy in these types of movies to wonder why these people don’t run for the hills at the first sign of weirdness. That the agents of strangeness are complimented by their welcoming behavior speaks to how charm and heart can entrap just as well or maybe even better than violent aggression, again speaking to feminine versus masculine power.
There is a bit of an imbalance between brutality and sensitivity that Aster toys with. The movie has a moment with a couple of gruesome skull fractures that feels as though he is trying to top that decapitated head in Hereditary. It seems to quite literally hit you over the head with its effort to shock. Whereas Hereditary made it a long, contemplative stare into the abyss informed by character development, in Midsommar it stands as mere shock value, albeit with that nod to the Visigoths mentioned earlier. However, where the film thrives is in its sympathy for Dani. For all of the failures of men to attach with her feelings, it is a ritual of unbridled shared emotional pain between her and the young women of the commune that makes for an odd twist in empathy. It’s a visceral moment that could be seen as quite hilarious were it not for its confrontational underpinnings of the unresolved pain inside Dani.
The glue to this movie, however, is not the violence or tension but how sympathetically Aster and Pugh present Dani. That close-up on her meltdown worrying about her sister at the start of the film is a moving thing to behold for all its focus. That we don’t see the boyfriend on the other line reveals immediately who we are to relate with. Pugh is excellent at presenting a tortured balance of worry and not trying to unsettle her boyfriend. She wants to be heard, yet is afraid she may be heard. Throughout the film, there are genius camera movements that seem to draw the viewer deeper and deeper into the characters’ journey, from high and low angles to flashier twists and turns, not to mention digital effects designed to imitate the effects of hallucinatory tea. But the central power of Midsommar lies in Pugh’s performance. Her conflicted state is the internal drama that adds depth to the odd goings-on about her. It is Pugh who makes this lengthy film worth the journey. Ultimately, Midsommar speaks to the problems to how men regard women’s feelings, and there’s some real nice justice served at the end of it all.
Midsommar runs 140 minutes, is in English and Swedish with some of the Swedish subtitled and is rated R.
Indie theater screening update: It opens at O Cinema Miami Beach on Friday, July 26. Click here for tickets.
It first opened in wide release on July 3. A24 invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.