(Note: Be sure to read Paste’s full review of Midsommar by Dom Sinacola and be wary of spoilers for it in this article.)
Midsommar begins with its female protagonist’s very real worries and emotional needs minimized and belittled, and it ends with her ensconced in what looks for all the world like acceptance and empowerment. It is a movie where self-centered, lazy, trifling men are ready to excuse any evil, as long as local authorities assure them that it’s normal and totally fine. As a sophomore effort from director Ari Aster—the guy fueling eye-rolling cinephile conversations about whether we’re seeing a trend of “elevated” horror—it’s proof that his ability to get under the audience’s skin with last year’s Hereditary wasn’t a fluke.
Some of the themes and setups in Midsommar will feel familiar, but where Hereditary was a journey into grief and guilt within a family, Midsommar is a view of how a smart, sensible person can find herself trapped in a spiral of abuse, all in service to a culture that smiles as it destroys.
As in his debut, Aster takes aim at the little moments of panic we feel every day that, if we’re lucky, turn out to be baseless. In Midsommar, as in Hereditary, they’re never baseless. His doomed woman in this feature is Dani (Florence Pugh), who opens the film in a moment so real it physically hurts, and yet which she still can’t be certain is actually happening. She’s afraid that her panic will be seen as female hysteria, afraid that it’ll be the final iota of neediness that causes her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), to break up with her.
In the unbearable silence that greets her when she tries to contact her family, she reaches out to Christian. His group of bros are all urging him, begging him to break up with this needy woman. But, as we already know, her fears aren’t baseless, her panic is not frivolous. The worst has happened, and it’s taken away everybody who could possibly comfort her. Christian can’t possibly fill the void, and Dani has been trained for decades not to expect it of him, just as he’s been trained to believe it’s unfair of her to saddle him with the responsibility.
That Dani was groomed to be a woman who puts up with emotional distance and denies her own need for support is thrown in even sharper relief as Christians’ group of grad students all grudgingly allow her to come along on their trip to Haarga, a remote Swedish commune, the home of their companion Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). (There is a real Haarga, and some of Midsommar’s mythmaking is loosely based off of it, a fact I hope doesn’t result in more tourism from people like Christian and his friends.) There, amid smiling people in immaculate white linen who feed her a constant stream of hallucinogens, she’s shown an alternative to putting up with Christian’s shit.
That commune is one of the most immaculately constructed settings I’ve seen in any film in years, an achievement in world-building both from a narrative standpoint and one of sheer film production. With its intricate set work, constant and intentional background activity by costumed extras and small mountain of lore, it makes an eerily plausible case for what happens to the feckless young foreigners caught in its web. Instantly the audience starts counting red flags: hallucinogenic drugs, total uniformity in dress and manner, games of “skin the fool.” (It’s not until the very end that we discover, as one of Dani’s companions asks, what that random bear hanging out in the cage is for.)
The biggest, though, comes early and spares the viewers nothing. Like everything else that happens, Aster’s characters and scenery flat out tell us it’s coming. As Pelle explains, life in his commune ends at 72. He neglects to mention that it ends by gruesome suicide, with fellow villagers ready to put you out of your misery if you fail. Surely, the viewer is supposed to think, this will finally convince these dumb white kids to get the hell out of there.
But it doesn’t. It’s love, the astounded cult members insist. And because they’ve been standing in a sun-drenched meadow with perfectly friendly people, Dani and her friends let themselves believe it. Hereditary used a twisted evil cult as a narrative device, but here, Aster takes time to actually illustrate the methods and the appeal of such a place. The characters are so unmoored from reality by the end of the movie that they fail to bat an eye at, for instance, the fact the commune’s prophet is the willful product of incest.
Against that backdrop, the fact Pelle’s earnest concern for Dani seems absolutely genuine—that the movie believes that he is—is one of the creepiest parts of Midsommar, as it informs Dani’s personal journey to catharsis through accepting a position of adoration in the cult. The poorly behaved guys she’s traveling with don’t do themselves any favors at all: Christian, with one eye on a local girl, decides he’ll just hijack fellow researcher Josh’s work. Josh, asked nicely to respect the local traditions and refrain from violating their privacy, does so anyway. As for juuling, snarking Mark, I’m pretty sure actor Will Poulter was given the direction that the character only remembers the locals are fluent in English when it’s literally being spoken directly to him. What, Pelle asks Dani at one point, are these men really offering her? If her way of life is one that doesn’t make her feel held, why stay?
There’s a lingering moment at the end of Midsommar after Christian has been caught in the act of committing the ultimate betrayal, and Dani has been newly vested with the power to decide his fate. I expected it to cut to black and leave us with a lady-or-tiger question, to ponder whether Dani still had enough willpower to realize that this (perfectly white, perfectly homogenous group which is actually the reason her boyfriend cheated on her) is only offering her what feels like acceptance. Then, in an extended aftermath that spares the viewer nothing, Aster shows us that no, she doesn’t.
Aster is at the center of conversations (often about fellow critical darling Jordan Peele as well) that hail him as some herald of “prestige” or “elevated” horror. It’s true that this ignores or minimizes numerous great horror films of every conceivable subgenre in just the last handful of years: monster movies, slashers modern and retro, found footage. It’s also true that Aster is a new voice telling tales about primal fears. It’s an accomplishment that both his features thus far have centered a female protagonist grappling with death in the family who finds herself at the center of a cult conspiracy, and yet the only thing audiences are likely to find repetitive about them is how disturbing they feel.
Kenneth Lowe sleeps until the sun goes down. He’s also a regular contributor to Escapist Magazine, and you can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.