A group of young Americans visit a remote Swedish village and find themselves at the mercy of a strange pagan cult in Midsommar, the second feature film by Director Ari Aster. The official synopsis calls it “a dread-soaked cinematic fairytale where a world of darkness unfolds in broad daylight.” There are certainly fairy tale elements, but the film also owes a great deal of its aesthetic to 1970s pagan horror—especially the 1973 film The Wicker Man—and your standard slasher film tropes. But the various styles don’t really mesh, and the end result is a film that is occasionally unsettling and disturbing, but never truly scary or surprising.
(Warning: spoilers below.)
Aster is a longtime fan of the horror genre and kicked off his career with a controversial short film called The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, in which a son develops a taboo incestuous relationship with this father. Hereditary, his first feature, also rooted its horror in dysfunctional family drama, with themes of trauma and grief—right before turning into a bone-chilling nightmare. It was lauded by critics as the scariest movie of the year and likened to such horror classics as The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. Audiences, however, begged to differ; the average CinemaScore for the the film was a “D+.” Hereditary still took in $ 79.3 million worldwide, more than recouping its modest $ 10 million budget.
How you felt about Hereditary might be a good indicator of your assessment of Midsommar, which shares some of the same themes and Aster’s idiosyncratic style, while never quite scaling the same cinematic heights, or plumbing the same psychological depths. Christian (Jack Reynor) wants to go to a summer festival in the remote village of Halsingland in Sweden with his buddies—at the invitation of native Swede Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) and over the objections of his girlfriend Dani (Florence Pugh). The couple is on the verge of a breakup after four years together, but then tragedy strikes Dani’s family and a guilt-ridden Christian invites her to join them.
“It’s sort of a crazy festival, with special ceremonies and dressing up,” Pelle disingenuously explains to her in the first trailer, which dropped in May. He neglected to mention all the nubile young Swedish girls in white dresses with flowers in their hair, making eyes at Dani’s boyfriend. And what’s with all the spooky drawings covering the walls inside the lodge? Add in a native drink with “special properties” (ie, hallucinogens), and things get super creepy (and bloody), super fast. But hey, that’s just their quaint folksy ways. And as Pelle earnestly assures Dani, “We only do this every 90 years.”
Aster was originally approached by A24 to make a slasher film set in Sweden, but he altered the storyline to focus instead on a couple on the verge of breaking up. The result, per Aster, is “a breakup movie dressed in the clothes of a folk horror film.” But those slasher bones are still there, and the film kind of suffers for it, as the characters march toward their inevitable fates with a relentless predictability—all the more so because Aster takes an unnecessarily heavy-handed approach when it comes to foreshadowing. It’s impossible for the viewer to experience a surprising twist when it’s telegraphed so clearly, so far in advance.
The characters march toward their inevitable fates with a relentless predictability.
There’s a weird morality to the slasher genre, whereby characters’ fates are frequently tied to their sins or shortcomings, and Midsommar hews to that trope. So when we see Mark (Will Poulter) acting like the stereotypical Ugly American, complaining about the food and constant sunshine, clumsily hitting on the girls, and then taking a leak on the cult’s sacred ancestral tree, we know he will pay for his boorish behavior. Ditto for the mild-mannered, ambitious anthropology grad student, Josh (The Good Place‘s William Jackson Harper, aka Chidi), whose desire to document the holy book and rituals of the cult leads him to breach their rules. There’s also a British couple invited by Pelle’s brother, whose “crime” is to vocally express horror the first time the festival activities take a bloody turn, and attempt to leave.
As for Christian, he slowly reveals himself to be even more of an unscrupulous cad than we thought. That said, Reynor was disturbed by the audience at a recent screening laughing at his character’s fate, telling them, “Shame on you,” and arguing that the punishment did not fit the crime. I’m inclined to agree with Reynor in principle, but this is, at heart, a slasher film, where a twisted, perverse sense of “justice” exists solely to rationalize the brutal violence. And Aster himself has said that Christian’s fate (which involves a bizarre, ritualistic, and thoroughly dehumanizing mating orgy followed by, well, you’ll see) was intended to toy with the audience and invoke such a reaction, goading us to contemplate our own ugly depths, specifically our bloodthirst.
This is a script that calls for extremely subtle shifts in tone, especially the buried tensions and passive-aggressiveness between Dani and Christian, and the entire cast turns in impressive performances. Reynor deserves extra kudos for his willingness to go full frontal as a display of his character’s utter humiliation and vulnerability; it’s a courageous performance all around.
Blomgren’s Pelle is the perfect embodiment of an outwardly sweet-tempered True Believer with underlying sinister intent, and his clear attraction to Dani gives him a selfish ulterior motive for welcoming her on their trip. He, too, lost his parents (“in a fire”) and rightly intuits that she is psychologically vulnerable and hence an ideal candidate for recruitment. But it’s Florence Pugh’s incredible performance as Dani that drives the entire film. Her journey from a grief-stricken woman trying to hide her pain for fear her callous boyfriend will leave her, to a willing active participant in a bloody pagan sacrifice, gives some semblance of dramatic structure to an otherwise muddled storyline.
The cinematography is stunning and really does give the film the feeling of a dark fairy tale. There’s something about the horrific events unfolding in a bright pastoral setting bathed in round-the-clock sunlight that heightens that other-worldly effect. At their best, Aster’s visuals augment the unfolding narrative without becoming intrusive; other times, they are self-consciously heavy-handed and jar the viewer out of the story. With a running time of two hours and 40 minutes, the film is overlong and ponderously paced. And given the predictable plot, there’s a diminished payoff in the end. Anyone who has seen The Wicker Man will know what’s coming.
Those might seem like minor nitpicks, but collectively they serve to diminish the impact of the gorgeous visuals and strong performances. In the end, Midsommar is a competent slasher film with artistic ambitions that are never fully realized.