I live for provocative horror movies—the more beautiful, the more imaginative, and the more messed up, the better. Like so many, I want to be challenged by a horror movie. I want it to make me question why I have specific reactions, why I squirm in my seat, why I cheer when someone meets their deserved bloody end. This the expectation I carry into any movie, including into Midsommar, the latest effort from Ari Aster (Hereditary).
As I’ve mentioned before, horror is experiencing something of a renaissance right now. Loads of filmmakers are experimenting with ways to tell imaginative, nuanced, and terrifying horror stories. These new films promise the comparably rare joy of finding that scary flick that pushes all the scary buttons while crafting an astounding story. So many times, horror films only accomplish one or the other (or, much worse, when a horror film doesn’t do either). In so doing, those films miss out on the deeply evocative power of carefully applied horror.
That seems to be a little bit of a trend this year, with films like Us and The Wind not quite living up to their promise. Unfortunately, for all Ari Aster’s evident talent and craftsmanship, Midsommar doesn’t strike the delicate balance either. On the one hand, Midsommar is a fascinating film with compelling character conflicts, stunning visuals, and enough messed-up plot developments to keep you entertained. On the other, Midsommar isn’t very scary. Sure, it’s creepy and unsettling, and it definitely delivers those disturbing moments, but Midsommar is a little too cerebral to make it a genuinely satisfying horror film.
Drawing much inspiration from the folk horror subgenre, Midsommar is the unsettling and melancholy story about the relationship between Dani (Florence Pugh) and her emotionally unavailable boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). After Dani experiences severe emotional trauma following a family tragedy, Christian becomes even more emotionally and withholding instead of doing the right thing and breaking up with her. Seeking to get out of her rut, she tags along with Christian on his vacation to Sweden with his friends Josh, Mark, and Pelle. Conveniently, Pelle hails from a small Swedish community that holds a special midsummer celebration every 90 years. The promise of partying and Swedish girls is enough to convince the lads to vacation in the cloistered commune. At first, the group’s hosts are welcoming and kind, even if they’re a little weird and their rituals are a little strange. As the rituals become more disturbing, Dani and the others realize that the celebration is more sinister than they assumed, and their hosts haven’t been honest about their intentions.
Like Hereditary, Midsommar is a thoughtfully executed film predicated on excellent writing, particularly where it concerns character development. Poor Dani feels like a real person struggling with real trauma and depression. Furthermore, her relationship with Christian is a brutal and insightful portrayal of a failing relationship that should have ended years ago. (There’s a reason why that aspect of the film launched so many memes—that part of the film kept it 100.) On top of that, the dynamic between Dani and Christian’s friends, who believe her to be clingy and needy based solely on Christian’s word, is painfully realistic. (I know because I’ve been that girl. It sucked.) Everything feels organic and nuanced but still tight and precise.
Aster’s precision extends to the Midsommar’s worldbuilding because, make no mistake, the idyllic landscape of this Swedish community belongs to a trippy, disconcerting world. The near-constant daylight. The detailed folk-drawings. The carved runes. The communal housing. The strange meals. The ceremonial clothing (holy shit, the costumes were stunning!). The distressing ceremonies. The way the villagers push psychedelics on the outsiders. The film’s visual language is striking, its cinematography breathtaking. Midsommar makes a strong argument for daytime horror, though many of those daytime scenes lack a certain visceral punch (but I’ll explain that more below).
Midsommar creates a mystical, beautiful, and nightmarish world for our viewing pleasure. It masterfully reveals key information about the community’s religion and customs, which are the most interesting part of the film. Even casual fans of folk horror will find the pagan religion at the center of Midsommar fascinating. That alone is worth the price of admission.
Given the script’s quality, the actors have a lot to work with, and it helps that Midsommar has a stacked cast. Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) manage to create detailed and interesting characters in a short time. Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) balances his character’s hidden motives with his altruistic desires. Jack Reynor plays Christian not as a straight-up douchebag but as a guy who simply doesn’t know what to do in an unpleasant situation, and thus can’t be bothered to make a decision. That’s a tall order for an actor, and he nails it. He nails it. And the villagers…they all seem so united in purpose, so unflinchingly assured of their agenda and what is demanded of them that you never doubt for a moment that they believe what they’re doing is for the best.
But of course, Florence Pugh steals the movie. She’s fearless in her portrayal of painful, unrelenting vulnerability. She creates moments of numb affect and volcanic emotion without sliding into melodrama. That takes skill, especially given the subject matter. Like Toni Collete in Hereditary, Pugh is Midsommar, and I hope she receives a great deal of critical acclaim for the role, though it probably won’t happen. (Horror is so overlooked, even when the acting is astounding. #JusticeforToni.)
Unlike Hereditary, however, Midsommar is a bit too cerebral to be scary. Creepily pretty? Yes. Unexpectedly gory? Yes. Damn troubling? Hell yes. But the horrors that played out onscreen never reached into my chest and made me feel that same horror. It felt too distant. As a passive viewer, I felt too removed to feel any vicarious investment. Sure, the same leisurely pacing that dragged down parts of Hereditary is a factor here. But the question of my “vicarious investment” is part of Midsommar’s whole point. It wants to show the viewer where it’s headed. It winks at the viewer, admitting that the film’s narrative is easy to predict from the beginning. After all, Midsommar isn’t trying to shock us with novelty—it wants to make us watch everything unfold in broad daylight without hiding in the shadows.
Midsommar becomes a kind of meta-horror film, including the viewer as a vicarious participant in all its demented ceremonies and rituals, much like the characters have been forced to do. This storytelling choice produces a very different kind of tension, a pointed question about what emotions and thoughts and reactions we might experience during the film. The novelty lies in asking us to question our own contributions to the experience, which carries implications for understanding the film’s insights about reciprocity and community.
For these reasons, Midsommar is a fascinating film that will linger in your thoughts for days to come. But it sacrifices a more emphatic, profound expression of its points by failing to incorporate more horror elements.
At any rate, Ari Aster is a brilliant filmmaker and storyteller. Even when he doesn’t completely nail it, his efforts are a welcome and much-needed counterpoint to the trite remakes that constantly plague horror fans.