dir: Ari Aster
This is some fucked up shit.
Midsommar is a deeply creepy flick, that is very long (I watched a director’s cut which adds like another half hour, making it nearly three hours long), but is not without its merits.
The main merit it possesses is Florence Pugh, who seems to be getting all the acting work these days (she was great in Lady Macbeth and the Little Drummer Girl mini series, and will star in the new Black Widow movie), and is just phenomenal even in something as disturbing as this. And it’s not an easy role, at all. You can just say this flick is a horror flick, and assume it requires someone being terrorised for a time before rising up and killing their tormentors or escaping to leave the tormentors to keep tormenting them in the sequel, but that’s not the kind of horror on display here.
This is a deeply weird flick, but it’s the kind of weird that I can get behind. I can’t say that I am that much of a horror flick fan now as in the past, but it certainly is transporting to see something a bit different (even if it isn’t entirely unfamiliar).
The place where it starts is a deeply, viscerally horrible place. Dani (Florence Pugh) is a college student, with a boyfriend called Christian (jack Reynor) who’s an anthropology graduate student. Her sister, who we never meet, has decided to kill herself, but even worse, to take her parents with her. But Dani doesn’t know all of this at first, and is reacting to a worrying text from her sister, and is more concerned about alienating her boyfriend by being too clingy or too needy.
When it cuts to the boyfriend, he’s chatting with his mates about how he’s planning on giving her the flick. The mates don’t seem to care, but they also seem to think he’s put up with enough as it is.
It is probably a kind of callous conversation that has been had by millions of people in their late teens early twenties since at least the dawn of human time, though it’s possible even our less evolved ancestors took a similar version of that chat for a spin back when the latest gadget was a sharp rock.
Though when Dani’s family is found dead, you can see why Christian might feel that he missed his chance to bail.
Several months later, one can understand that Dani is still pretty traumatised by what happened, and doubtless would never completely recover. Whatever fragility she might have possessed beforehand is now amplified a hundredfold. For a lot of the film I couldn’t entirely tell whether the script wanted us to side with Dani or not, because the callous bro-like approach of Christian and most of his mates would seem to support a fairly sexist and misogynist reading of Dani’s every word of dialogue or facial expression. Interactions between Dani and Christian are fairly passive-aggressive, with people very rarely saying what they actually mean, and then completely reversing their stance by the end of the conversation.
To whit: Christian and his mates, which include Josh (the great William Jackson Harper, perhaps best known for being so great as Chidi Anagonye on The Good Place) and a dull, walking erection of a person (William Poulter) are invited by a fellow grad student called Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to come to his home town in Sweden for a special celebration.
Christian doesn’t tell Dani that he’s planning to go until days before. He specifically tells his friends that she’s not going to come, but he’s going to invite her because…you know, what she’s been through? But surely she won’t want to come, eh?
So he tells the person he doesn’t want to come to Sweden with him that she should come, knowing full well that she is terrified to be on her own, and the next we know, they’re all on the plane to Sweden.
Look, before anything else that happens, only talking about what we’ve seen up to this point, there’s a kind of discrete, exquisite horror to the depiction of this kind of relationship. It’s kind of agonising to watch. It’s not played for laughs, at all, but there’s an almost macabre humour to it.
It’s even more agonising to remember times in your life when you might have exhibited similar levels of disconnectedness, or perhaps desperately clinging to someone you knew who couldn’t stand you, but being so terrified of the alternative.
Anyway, enough about, uh, relationship advice from sensitive experts, Christian’s friends seem disgusted but they at least refrain from mocking him the way we imagine guys mock their friends with toxic phrases like being “whipped” or worse. They put up with it because, I dunno, what choice do they have.
Pelle doesn’t seem to mind, in fact, of Christian’s friends, he at least seems to treat her like she’s a human being, and not just a female-shaped void of neediness. He’s even, perhaps, happy that she’s coming along. He, at least, even remembers that it’s her birthday, and gives her a present.
The clod that is Christian don’t know; and Christian don’t care. For much of the flick I wondered if Christian was a robot, but then I shook my head with self-disgust: Had he been a robot, his makers could just as easily have programmed him to simulate human emotions better than this human version does.
On the flight over, we find Dani sobbing in the loo, in the midst of what seems to be an anxiety attack. We don’t know that it’s from a fear of flying, or because she just keeps feeling dread despite the worst thing that could happen to her having already happened. We understand, for whatever reasons the screenwriter had for setting it up like this (screenwriter and director just so happen to be the same person, which is not much of a coincidence), that Dani is in a state where it feels like a catastrophe is just around the corner at any time. We understand why, even if we (or at least I) don’t entirely understand why she would need to be characterised like that just before you drop her and her fellow travellers into a situation where catastrophe actually is just around the corner, they just don’t know it yet.
This can’t help but feel a bit unfair to people who live with anxiety, but, then again, horror flicks aren’t here to make us feel better about ourselves. If anything, their whole divine purpose is to make us feel fucking terrible.
When they get to the village, which is way, way to the north of Stockholm, it’s deeply idyllic and deeply fucking weird. See, people’s ways and customs; to outsiders, they’re all pretty weird. The less people that adhere to them, the weirder they seem. The broader they seem, and the more accepted they are, the more like a religion they look. The people of this commune dress like they’re Scandinavian Amish people, their houses are communal and strange, but nothing leaps out immediately as being too much out of the ordinary. Many of the hicks and weirdoes of the village seem nice enough. Not threatening at all.
We are told that these people who seem to have a ritual for everything and a weird chant or food or potion to offer people for any moment of the day are having an extra special celebration this midsummer. There’re enough rituals that look similar enough to other rituals from other cultures that we might have seen, that we’d have some idea why it takes a while for the Americans to clue into how deeply fucking strange these particular inbred Swedes are. There’s the natural politeness Westerners are meant to relate to the rest of the world with, a kind of “oh well this might be messed up but it would be rude to tell them their backward ways are monstrous” niceness that will not serve them well, but at least for Christian and Josh, they’re anthropology students, so much of this stuff should be fascinating from an academic point of view.
Josh, who doesn’t seem to have any feelings whatsoever towards Dani or anyone else, but is excited about using this trip to gather material for his thesis, is thrilled to document every aspect of this demented place to the best of his abilities. When Christian, betraying a mindless, sheep-like follower mentality, also says he’s going to do his thesis on these hicks, Josh finally gets energised, and the film’s only non-passive aggressive argument takes place, as Josh hilariously berates Christian for having no idea what he’s doing in his life, perpetually bandwagonning onto anyone else’s idea.
The rituals, which start off harmless and rural enough, progressively get more ominous, culminating in an older couple, two people who’ve reached the tender age of 72, launch themselves off of a tall rock, plunging to their deaths. They’re people at the top of the rock. When they hit the ground, they’re replaced with very cheap looking plastic / rubber / wax mannequins, which start off looking horrific, but quickly, I’m ashamed to say this, start to look comical.
That the villagers seem to take this all in stride is meant to imply they all are used to it from long exposure to this madness. That the Americans except Dani seem to eventually be okay with it is pretty inexplicable, but hey, when in Rome, or Halsingland…
There are other outsiders there other than the Americans. A different youngish Swede also invited some Brit friends along for the celebrations. There, too, is a strange, passive-aggressive backstory for our . Connie (Ellora Torcha) and Simon (Archie Madekwe) are a couple that also came along to share in the magic, but the jerk who invited them seems to have designs upon Connie. As Connie explains, though, in that perfect way to clarify the actual status of someone’s relationship, despite what the guy says, they never dated, they went on one date. Read into it what you like, but when what happens to them happens, well, it’s possible to see that there was a different plan at play.
Connie and Simon, we hardly knew ye. Why do they disappear? Well, I can’t help but feel that there’s a bit of a racial / white supremacist vibe at play with this enclave of murderous pagans who are so white they could be albinos. This film is in no hurry to get anywhere, and there are many days of celebrations and rituals to look forward to before the big bonfire that couldn’t have been more of a nod to the original Wicker Man than if it had tried, but some of the frankly bizarre actions taken by these well-clothed hillbillies at least has some kind of practical purpose.
When Josh the Academic queries one of the elders as to how they, the Harga, avoid inbreeding and all the problems that come with it, the elder says they take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen, and yet with the very next question that Josh asks, about the strange, deformed chap whose picture book scrawlings they seem to take as gospel, as a sort of oracle / holy fool, the elder points out that the oracle is the deliberate product of inbreeding, and always has been.
Okay, so… Okay. I mean, things were weird before, desperately weird, but now it seems like no-one here’s going to get out alive.
There is also a young redheaded woman who seems to only have eyes for Christian. Maja (Isabelle Grill) does a whole bunch of deeply creepy stalkery stuff that I’m not going to relate, because I’m kind of a prude, but she is going to get what she wants, and I’m not sure anyone is going to be able to stop her.
The thing is, though, what she wants is not Christian, but only something which he can provide.
I must say, despite the leisurely pacing, and the incredible amount of time and work that goes into constructing the lives of these weirdoes and their stupid civilisation and its dumb customs (perhaps way too much time and effort), the film builds to an ending as horrifying and hypnotic as it is effective. It’s not a surprise, past a certain point, because as Dani points out to the person least likely to believe her, but who would have benefited the most from listening to her, that there’s no way any of them are ever leaving. And she does that less than half-way through the film.
For her, though, even as she has been dreading what is she pretty sure is coming, even when she is selected as the May Queen, it’s not even a matter of whether something bad is going to happen to her or not – because she’s already been through the worst, at least she thought so before. The question becomes whether something positive can come out of abject horror. Paradoxically, it almost seems like it can.
As she dances during the May Queen contest (on drugs: why are they always on drugs?) she even thinks she can speak Swedish, and one of the other understands her. Is it possible that she could find the home, the community that she desperately craves, amongst these Scandinavian lunatics?
Well before the ending Dani has a nightmare where she thinks her friends are trying to leave without her. Given the kind of film we’ve been watching to that point, should we wonder whether that’s her worst fear? A person who’s lost their entire family can’t be said to have an irrational fear of abandonment, because her fears became fully realised before her eyes and ours too, as we saw at the start. And Christian’s a horrible boyfriend. Still, poor bastard… No-one deserves that shit.
I hesitate to say that I enjoyed this film, because, man, some fucking awful things happen. But I feel like I got where it was coming from, and I even kinda understand where Dani is coming from at the very end, where the most shocking thing she could possibly do is what she does, and it’s that she smiles.
She fucking smiles, and it’s the darkest and most understandable thing in the world, in a world that is practically incomprehensible. Midsommar is not for impatient people, and I can’t say it’s an illuminating experience. One could even say that, despite its unconventional pace and content, it’s not that different from a lot of horror flicks where Americans go overseas and are brutally murdered mostly just for being Americans. Those kinds of flicks are meant to say more about American paranoia than about the murderousness of the outside world, but, really, Midsommar is all about how awful brutal murders and death rituals seem until you’re part of the community, in which case they seem like a fun day out for the whole family.
7 times the Leader is good, the Leader is great, we surrender our will, as of this date, out of 10
“He's my good friend and I like him, but... Dani, do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you?” – good question, but do any of us feel like that though? Will you save all of us from Christian, Pelle? - Midsommar