After bringing one of the greatest horror films of the decade to the silver screen last year with Hereditary, writer/director Ari Aster returns with a sophomore film which reinforces his status as an important filmmaker of our time and continues to reveal his inspirations and his style as a filmmaker. Midsommar won’t please everyone- especially those who are looking for standard summer movie fare or a modern day spectacle of “jump scare” hijinks- but its challenging subject matter and hypnotic auditory and visual design certainly won’t be easily forgotten by anyone who sees it.
The set-up of Midsommar is as traditional as it gets for horror movies. Florence Pugh is perfectly cast as Dani, a young woman who recently lost her family at the hands of a fatal tragedy caused by her sister who is suffering from mental illness. Dani’s in a rocky four-year relationship with the indifferent Christian (Jack Reynor), who seems more interested in hanging out with his bros and settling on a Masters thesis than supporting Dani during her period of crisis and grief. Fortunately, Christian’s friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) has a plan to take things in a different direction: he’s returning to his small community in rural, technicolor Sweden, during a time of the year when the sun seemingly never sets to participate in the midsummer festival, and the Americans are all invited! Will the change in scenery and culture help Dani and Christian discover themselves and patch things up? No! What follows is a textbook fish out of water horror story in the same vein as Cannibal Holocaust or Green Inferno that’s somehow completely devoid of the exploitative elements of this specific sub-genre and elevated to a level of high art that the sub-genre has never seen before. Dani and Christian drift further apart as the festival progresses, and the fate of the outsiders is determined solely by how well they are able to abandon their Western ideas of the self and integrate completely into the concept of the community.
Aster’s prowess as a filmmaker is on full display in Midsommer. Remember those wonderful, Stanley Kubrick-esque brooding nightmare sequences that seemed to go on forever in Hereditary? Well, they’re back in Midsommar! There are very few scenes in the film which occur in darkness, but Aster uses each and every one to whip up eerily crawling camera movements to evoke nightmarish descents into good old fashioned horror. Aster is always aware of the visual space of his landscapes, and he often places silhouettes against the open areas of his frames. His moments of gore are brief overall, but when they occur on screen they’re shot in explicit close-up, giving an unwincingly scientific look at the grotesque achievements of the special effects department. Aster’s painstaking architectural shots are also present in Midsommar, and he is still in the habit of shooting houses and buildings as a mix between the stage of a play and a doll’s house.
The writing and the characters of Midsommar are clear cut and matter of fact. Aster writes a surprisingly lean script for the movie’s long run time, but he fleshes out serviceable archetypes for the American characters and he knows when to insert a well-placed joke for a little comedic relief. Now that he’s two films into his oeuvre, it’s clear that Aster likes to tell his story exactly how it is rather than meddle with petty surprises or silly plot twists. Everything the viewer needs to know about what will happen or how it will happen is clearly communicated. I admired how the inexplicable corpse in the attic of Hededitary ended up being just that. In Midsommar, when a character says that his people kill the old people when they reach a certain age, you’d better believe him! This verbal establishment of plot expectations is further reinforced in Midsommar by a series of drawings on plaques and walls which tell the astute viewer almost every time what kinds of horror will happen in the coming scenes. Whether it’s a bizarre love spell or an incident involving a flaming bear, the writing is literally on the wall! This approach allows Aster to focus on how to expertly tell a concrete story rather than disguise poorer storytelling with convoluted devices.
The most unusual elements of Hereditary were tucked away neatly inside of its divisive ending, and many of its disturbing moments happened so quickly that they could easily be ignored by a mainstream audience otherwise held captive by the film’s more traditional supernatural story. Midsommar feels more self-indulgent, in that Aster quickly dives into what has been been established as some of his signature traits as a director. The following motifs emerged in Hereditary and are further explored in Midsommar:
- The loss of the nuclear family
- The self versus the community
- The roles of rituals in society
- The dismemberment of human bodies/The transformation of human bodies
The more challenging of these motifs- such as ritual and dismemberment/transformation- played an integral role in Hereditary, but they didn’t rear their ugly heads on screen for more than a few minutes in total. They are the focus of Midsommar, and they play out in gory detail over the course of its two and a half hour run time. Human bodies become stuffed dolls… a hay jester with a fleshy mask or a human torso twigs for limbs. But other transformations are beautiful, like Dani’s floral May Queen getup. Some audiences will not be able to get over the bizarre nature of many of the rituals that play out on screen, and uncomfortable laughter will likely cover up any attempts at digging into the significance of these challenging moments. Aster structures Midsommar in such a way that its most violent moment occurs early on in the film during a scene on a mountaintop which concludes with a closeup shot and a giant mallet. The climax is tame by comparison, focusing on an ancient dance-off and Aster’s signature use of sacrifice by fire. Such a reversal may not satisfy the casual horror fan hoping for the actual horrors of the film to ramp up as it nears the end, but the structure of the film mirrors Dani’s path towards accepting a new lifestyle and the period of rebirth meant to coincide with the conclusion of the midsummer ritual itself.
Aster clearly researched and respects these ancient practices, and that’s why they’re portrayed on screen non-judgmentally and without a hint of the signature exploitation that typically haunts these kinds of movies. Even though the characters of the film are studying ancient cultures, only one of them seems to have done his homework (William Jackson Harper’s Josh), and even he falls victim to his unwillingness to let go of the self and integrate into the community when he refuses to honor a strict “no photographs” policy and share his thesis idea with his (less informed and less serious) buddy. At the bottom rung sits Will Poulter’s Mark, who accidentally pisses on the ancestral tree and incorrectly dates the civilization and its rituals to the viking period of Norse mythology. The outsiders are punished only when they scoff at tradition, or judge, or make decisions which go against the greater good. Aster really did his homework with the community he presents on screen, and it shows in his painstaking dedication to presenting an early matriarchal civilization that’s fixated on ensuring the success of the summer harvest by any means necessary. Midsommar opens with a shot of the lands during winter and they’re bleak, dark, and covered under feet of snow. History shows that these are people who eventually transitioned from depending on the harvest to pillaging in the period made so popular by viking culture, so it’s easy to see why the wish for a good harvest was such a desperate hope in this kind of place in time. Human sacrifice was increasingly more common in the fertility rituals of regions with erratic climates because desperate times called for desperate measures. In the eyes of the community, especially one where there is no room for the self, the loss of nine people at the hands of human sacrifice is nothing compared to the starvation and death of the entire group.
Aster peppers Midsommar with subtle visual comparisons between the rituals which look so odd to our contemporary, Western eyes and the modern rituals of everyday American life. The concept is spoken aloud when a character comments, after the scene on the cliff, that the ancient community would probably view the slow descent towards death in a Western old folks home as grotesque and inhumane as the Americans viewed the event on the cliff. At one point in the film, Christian repeatedly tries to light a candle on a cake while singing “Happy Birthday” to Dani. He can’t finish the song unless the candle is lit. In the background, older women stand in a circle and chant as they bob a baby up and down. Dani routinely can’t sleep without consuming her nightly sleeping pill, which she bums off of Josh each and every evening (until he goes missing). At another point in the film Dani has a vivid nightmare in which she envisions her dead sister amid the corpses at the bottom of the sacrificial cliff, still hooked up to the exhaust hose she constructed to take her own life and the lives of her parents. The image evokes the difference between these two moments of human sacrifice. Dani’s sister selfishly takes the lives her parents so they could all be dead together, whereas the elders of the community give their lives because they believe it will ensure that their community as a whole will live on in their absence. Even the routine howls of Dani’s panic attacks lose their individuality after she’s crowned the May Queen and all of the other women writhe on the floor with her and mimic her cries.
Both Hereditary and Midsommar feature protagonists who lose their nuclear family. In Hereditary, the loss occurs at the hands of of an American cult that acts in the name of a pagan demon in hopes that it will provide them with a Western reward: individual fortune and fame. In Midsommar the loss occurs at the hands of a person who likely fell through the cracks of an underfunded and bureaucratic modern mental health system. The communal healing processes, like group therapy, don’t work in Hereditary, likely because their end result is individual well-being. In Aster’s two films, only Dani is able to find what she’s looking for after her loss, and its only because she abandons the concept of the nuclear family altogether in favor of the communal village. Even as May Queen, her duties are to carry out the community’s rituals and serve the group over herself.
One ironic difference between Hereditary and Midsommar is that Hereditary makes it very clear that there is an otherworldly influence on the characters of the film, whereas Midsommar is strictly grounded in reality. The villagers of Midsommar sometimes speak of a spiritual presence which can give life and take away life, but its influence is never directly seen by the audience (the closest we get at one point is a glimmer of light that resembles the one we see at the end of Hereditary). Trees and landscapes ripple as the characters lose track of reality, but it can always be explained by a mysterious elixir they’ve consumed. Aster’s choice to exclude a distinct supernatural presence begs one final question which may solidify Midsommar as a horror experience: are these fertility rituals actually needed? Are they really working? In a societal sense, the community appears happy and healthy, emotionally supported and well-fed. But it’s at the cost of modern individuality and at the peril of fatal periodic rituals. In the fire sacrifice scene at the end of the film, one of the true believers appears calm in the face of the flames, but then he bursts out into horrified screams as he’s consumed by them. Just how long will Dani keep that smile on her face that we see just before the credits roll?
Midsommar is the product of a legitimate auteur and it’s proof that Hereditary wasn’t simply beginner’s luck. Ari Aster is clearly a promising creative force in the world of fine horror films, and his uncompromising approach to Midsommar suggests he’s only going to drift further from mainstream horror as his career progresses. Midsommar is a daring sophomore effort, and- while it’s likely not going to earn him any new fans- it most certainly paid off as a rich, unsettling, uncomfortable, and ultimately unforgettable cinematic experience.