Call it cynicism, but we humans tend to get suspicious anytime anything is too cheerful. I’d imagine it’s one of the reasons clowns and dolls have long been horror fixtures; the smiles are just too broad, the eyes just too wide. It’s joy on crack, and our natural inclination is to back away from it. In Midsommar, writer-director Ari Aster bottles this horror trend and takes it to the extreme. Jordan Peele called Midsommar “the most idyllic horror film of all time,” and it’s an assertion that’s right on the money.
After experiencing an unimaginable family trauma, Dani (Florence Pugh) joins her boyfriend Christian (Jack Raynor) and his group of friends on a trip to Sweden for the midsummer festival, a 9-day event celebrating the summer solstice that happens only once every 90 years. When they arrive at the Swedish commune, they’re instantly transported to what feels like a different world, one where the sky stays bright and blue late into the night. Combine that with the exuberant dancing, embroidered white garments, and the overall sense of community – to call it picturesque would be an understatement. It’s the land of the midnight sun, so bright almost every shot has a magical fairy tale quality to it. But sinister intentions are hiding not-so-subtly in plain sight, as our group of outsiders will soon find out.
Aster’s follow-up to the widely praised Hereditary, Midsommar is a very different beast than his feature debut. At its core, this is the ultimate break-up movie. In the film’s incendiary opening sequence, we see Christian preparing to dump Dani. But then comes the brutal and sudden death of her family, and he chooses to stay with her out of obligation. But what would be more cruel — to leave her all alone to cope with her grief, or to be there by her side, a shell of a boyfriend who is unable to connect with her on an emotional level? Aster’s film leaves no room for debate; his neglect is a sin of the highest order.
Christian’s emotional apathy is in direct contrast with the ways of the villagers. When one of their own jumps from a cliff as part of a ritual suicide ceremony and fails to die, the man’s wails of agony are echoed by all the village onlookers. His pain is their pain. They are one. Now cut to Dani and Christian – It’s safe to say this is couples therapy from hell.
Midsommar is less of a straight horror outing, and more of a collection of horrific ideas set to even more horrific imagery. When our group of American protagonists see the ritual suicide, their first instinct is that of total outrage. But they quickly pull themselves back from fear and panic. This is a foreign land with totally different cultural norms, they tell themselves. In a climate where being politically correct is of paramount importance, these millennials fail to find the line between cultural sensitivity and normal internal alarm bells. Midsommar is peppered with a very distinct and surprising sense of humor, and this dichotomy between the Americans and the cult-like villagers is the movie’s comedic bread and butter.
Part folk horror, part exploration of toxic relationships, the film doesn’t scare so much as it worms its way deep into your brain for maximum discomfort. How could something so pretty make you want to permanently glue your eyelids shut? Yet leave it to Aster: no matter how badly we want to avert our eyes, Midsommar makes perverse rubberneckers of us all.
Midsommar is now playing in South Florida movie theaters.