Many years ago, I arose from a night of restless non-sleep, feeling the distinct sting of dysphoria one experiences in the autumn of a dying relationship. Anyone who’s been there before knows exactly the feeling I’m talking about and it’s not a pleasant one. On one hand, it’s deeply painful; like severing an appendage that’s gangrenous. Sure it’s infected, dysfunctional even, but it’s still a part of your body that you’ve grown comfortable with. On the other hand, there’s a sick sense of inevitability to it; you know exactly what needs to happen. The how and the when are up for debate, but the truth of the matter is undeniable and you must either confront it or cower.
Such is the feeling I was experiencing on this early, muggy fall morning (though I didn’t realize it yet). The feeling was so intense in fact that going for a spirited jog is all I could do to keep from falling apart; which of course in the end, I did. Somewhere in the middle of my crepuscular dash, the flood gates to years of repressed emotion triggered an intense empathic response that left me weeping in the city streets (in my running shorts and tennis shoes). But they weren’t tears of sadness, they were tears of catharsis; a purging of emotion that was equal parts terrifying and purifying. I didn’t realize until later, but that moment was a fulcrum for me, in which the inevitable presented itself: At that moment, the relationship had moved from Autumn into Winter, where everything withers and dies.
Don’t worry, I promise I’ll get back to this…
If you’ve seen Midsommar (the sophomore effort of writer/director Ari Aster) then you know why this dramatic anecdote is relevant. If you haven’t, stop reading now because MAJOR SPOILERS (for Midsommar, Hereditary, and The Shining) are forthcoming.
Over the years as a filmmaker, I’ve become increasingly fascinated with the idea of using film as a Matryoshka stacking doll for deeper ideas or allegories. I’m not talking about something that film analysts and cinephiles can pontificate about for hours (looking at you Room 237), but rather a deliberate idea that’s so integrally woven into the fabric of the film that it’s impossible to miss on an emotional level, yet very handsome in the way it’s disguised at face value. Suffice it to say, I expected many things going into Midsommar, but an emotional gut punch was not one of them. (And therein lies the film’s hidden power.)
IMDB summarizes Midsommar as follows:
A couple travels to Sweden to visit a rural hometown’s fabled mid-summer festival. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult.
I’ll be the first to admit that based on this description, the film already feels like well-trod territory, if not bordering on pastiche. How many hapless youths has the pantheon of horror cinema seen lured into a false sense of security by a cult with ulterior motives? The entire folk-horror sub-genre is wrought with clichés, and yet; something about Midsommar lured me in. Perhaps it was the pre-requisite clout that A24 brings to the table or the mystique of a new Ari Aster film. Or quite simply out of starvation for original content in a world of live-action remakes. Whatever the catalyst was, I found myself quietly looking forward to Midsommar, never quite admitting it and never quite allowing it to brim over into excitement. All that changed after I saw the film, and in the following review I’ll break down and explore three reasons why I think that is.
“Terror is when you come home and realize everything you own has been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute” -Stephen King
From the opening frame of Midsommar, you immediately get the sense that something is awry. Just one look at contemporary artist Mu Pan’s custom mural telegraphing the events of the film manages to put you on edge. Maybe it’s the Sun’s slightly sinister rictus or the…wait for it…ambiguity of not knowing the mural’s full meaning; It feels threatening somehow, but you’re not sure why. Whatever the reason, it strikes the perfectly equivocal chord that permeates the rest of the film.
Youtube personality Michael Stevens published an excellent video explaining the difference between what is scary and what is creepy. To summate, scary is being inside a crashing plane. Creepy would be suddenly realizing that everyone on the plane is wearing an expressionless animal mask. The key difference being that scary implies a tangible threat, and creepy denotes a sense of unease derived from not knowing if there is a threat.
Ari Aster understands this. All throughout Midsommar, there are strange character beats, prominently odd artwork choices, and an unrelentingly menacing score that all serve to trigger a subliminal fight or flight response, telling us things are not okay, despite seeming idyllic on the surface.
From the moment Dani and company begin their initial descent into Sweden, the film’s craft clues you in on the imminent danger. A particularly ominous montage as the group is en route to Hälsingland comes to mind; in which an inverted country road twists and winds to the pervasive growl of Bobby Krlic (The Haxam Cloak)’s score. Throughout the film that sense of threat, though diverted from time to time, never leaves completely; even once the gang has arrived at the village and meets the seemingly affable Hårga people.
It is fundamentally off-putting to have a setting in which the sun shines so bright that there’s quite literally no dark corners for anything threatening to hide in, yet you still feel a malevolent presence prowling around like some great invisible predator. The ambiguity of not knowing where the threat will come from makes it all the more unnerving. Because make no mistake, it’s there…somewhere.
In that way, Midsommar reminded me of another “horror” film that’s near and dear to me; Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Both films draw from a similar well of ambiguity, bombarding you with imagery or audible cues that alert your danger response, despite the threat being somewhat veiled. Case in point, there’s nothing overtly threatening about this shot. It is only once you consider the subliminally layered subtext that it becomes deeply upsetting.
Another mutually employed tactic across both films is great intentionality behind what the filmmakers choose NOT to show. In The Shining, we’re forced to only guess at the full extent of Danny’s ordeal in Room 237. We get an idea of what happened, but it feels neutered somehow, leaving plenty of room for your imagination to do its awful work.
In a similar way, Midsommar deprives us of any clarity as to the specifics of how Simon, Connie, and Mark (and to an extent, Josh) meet their untimely demise. In that sense, just knowing that those unspeakable atrocities are happening somewhere off camera while we’re subjected to Dani and Christian’s downward spiral, is far more troubling than the pulp of detailing those killings.
It is also worth noting that both films take their time. The trailer for Midsommar made it look aggressive; like a relentless Aronofskian barrage of nightmarish, ritualistic violence. Though I would say ultimately the film delivers on its promise, that element is not the focal point. Instead, we are given something much more serene. Everything frightening or violent is tinged with a hint of beauty.
At 147 minutes, Midsommar is not concerned with brevity in the slightest. Slow, long takes play out before us in which the dramaturgy unfolds in a very gradual, almost hypnotic way. In that sense, the scenes feel accumulative, building atop one another, slowly ratcheting up the sense of unease and even worse, isolation. But where The Shining used physical isolation as a theme, Midsommar explores something that could be just as bad; personal isolation. Which brings me to…
Ari Aster has a unique way of using interior human emotion as a vehicle for fear. Both in his previous film Hereditary, and in Midsommar, you have an uncommonly galvanizing insight into the ugliness of grief, and how scary it can be from the outside. To gain a perspective on this, look no further than Ari’s own action text within the Midsommar screenplay (this is the moment Christian gets a phone call from Dani, we’re about to learn that something horrible has happened…)
“On the other end: an extended, agonized MOAN. Heavy, frightening CRYING. It’s a deep, horrible cry. One of pure animal grief. It then curdles into a sustained WAIL OF ANGUISH.”
Where plenty of screenwriters would simply write-
“She is inconsolable”
…that seems startlingly reductive after reading Ari’s take on it. It’s no mistake that his depictions of grief are so distinctly specific and upsetting. This is the pure voice of the filmmaker, bringing you into his troubled perspective on why these heightened negative human emotions are scary and alienating.
Bearing that in mind, Florence Pugh’s Dani Ardor is one of the most sympathetic characters I’ve ever seen on screen. The reasons for this are manifold; namely, Florence’s performance is a tour de force. All genre baggage aside, this is an Oscar-worthy turn despite the inevitability that it won’t even factor into the equation. Florence doesn’t just synthesize Dani’s emotions, she embodies them in a way that almost feels voyeuristic; like we shouldn’t be allowed to see this. It’s too personal. Too raw. Part of my empathy for Dani could very well stem from the fact that I found her more relatable than I care to admit. But none of that empathy would have been possible if the film wasn’t so effective at putting me inside her personal experience.
Regardless of how you tell a story, the journey will always be more potent if you’re inside the experience of the characters. Most assembly line horror/thrillers keep you at arm’s length from the character’s internal processes. Even when they are feeling things deeply, you don’t innately share their interior experience. You instead simulate the external threat by proxy of the characters, which allows you to put yourself in that situation.
John Doe is frantically being chased through the woods by a machete-wielding lunatic. He screams and cries as he pushes through the thorns and brambles.
As the viewer, you understand this is stressful. But are you inside John’s head? In most films of this ilk, you’re not. It’s an extremely subtle issue of how a story is fine-tuned that invites you into the intimacy of a character’s mind.
From the opening scene of Midsommar, you are inside Dani’s experience. You feel her fear, her worry, her anxiety, the looming threat of existential panic; it’s all there. The reason it’s there is because Ari is giving us context for her neurosis. In the prologue, before we learn ANY specifics about the nightmarish way in which Dani’s entire family is dispatched, we first learn how she feels, and that she’s anxious that something bad might happen. Her fear is our way into the story…
One of my favorite scenes early on involves Dani (betrayed by her insidious avoidance of conflict) being press-ganged into taking mushrooms, when she knows (and we know) that it’s probably the worst possible idea she could have. What follows is a startlingly insightful and heartbreaking descent as Dani’s grasp on reality gives way to a vista of anxiety. “No no no, don’t think that. It’s almost your birthday”, she pleads with herself, trying desperately to quell the darkness that threatens to engulf her. But by this point, it’s too late. Her character is alone, and all the madness that ensues only serves to further isolate her from her own world, the Hårgas and from her increasingly estranged boyfriend.
Wisely, Dani’s character and the events of the festival are diametrically opposed, which creates a world of internal terror for her. Most folk-horror films would be content to show you the viscera of the ritual and call it a day (wow, shocking!)
Midsommar, by contrast, shows you these things THROUGH Dani, who has a well established, deeply troubled relationship with death and abandonment (A harrowing dream sequence in which Dani is left behind by her friends comes to mind). Everything we see is through her lens, making it much more inescapable; like a nightmare that you can’t wake up from. That suffocating interiority ripples throughout the entire film as a distinct aesthetic philosophy, and makes for an uncommonly upsetting experience.
Perhaps the most surprising and rewarding aspect of Midsommar for me is that in its final mesmeric moments, you realize the entire film is a trojan horse, having successfully snuck something unconventional passed the dictatorial gatekeepers of the horror genre; unmitigated catharsis.
For years I’ve wondered if it was possible for a horror film to co-exist with a sense of pathos; a type of “horror-catharsis” that, like the lancing of a boil, allows the viewers to purge their anxieties in a way that’s constructive without betraying the fundamental tenets of the genre. With Midsommar’s phantasmagoric final act, I’m happy to be proven right.
It’s far from a secret that Ari Aster based the film on a breakup:
“The goal was ultimately to make a big, operatic breakup movie that feels the way breakups actually feel: catastrophic, like the world is ending.”
And operatic it is! Ari has gone on to say that it’s a folk-horror film incidentally, but that was far from the original impetus. The trappings of that genre merely provided a way into a very heightened, experiential representation of the heat death of a dying relationship.
There’s a rather exposition-heavy scene in which a Hårga elder explains that the Rubi Radr (the Hårga’s scripture and basis for the cult) is an ever-evolving piece of work that they essentially make up as they go along. To me, this almost seems like Ari telegraphing the suggestion that the specifics of the lore is secondary to what is actually important: the film’s allegorical meaning. Underneath all the lore and red herrings, the film is about one thing: The downward spiral and inevitable death of Dani and Christian’s relationship.
Which begs an obvious question, but Ari was good to clarify —
“Nobody in the movie is a surrogate for my ex-girlfriend. It’s not like this is what I want to do to my ex, but there is a feeling of you want to set fire to that part of yourself and that part of your life and move on clean because it’s so painful.”
Speaking of setting fire to things, remember when I promised to get back to my opening anecdote? On that muggy fall morning, as I was running to combat the emotional war that was happening inside of me, I experienced a feeling that I’ll never forget. It doesn’t come around often in life, but when it does it’s unmistakable. Somehow, I had managed to go years without thinking about that morning…until I saw the end of Midsommar.
As Christian (encased in his bear suit) burns alive in the temple, I was suddenly aware of what the film was saying and it all came flooding back. The pain, the catharsis, the peace that all came with the acceptance that the relationship was over. In my circles, the ending has been polarizing. Some people have asserted that it’s wicked and sour, leaving them feeling deeply unsettled. While others merely suggest that in the end, all Dani manages to do is switch one dysfunctional relationship for another (with that of the Hårgas). Even Florence Pugh herself has admitted-
“I thought it would be so interesting to have the love of her life in the building and she’s a kid looking at a firework. That’s how I imagined it, saying, ‘This is someone that’s completely gone now. She doesn’t realize what’s going on, and she’s just really happy the fire is going up.’ So when we shot it, that’s what I was trying to get at. That’s what made the ending possible for me. I don’t think I would’ve supported Dani as much if she knew that he was in there. I don’t think anybody is that sinister. You’re not going to watch your boyfriend cheat and be like, ‘Burn!’ I know Christian was a bit of a [expletive], but I didn’t want her to be evil at the end.”
I would posit that these views are absolutely valid if you’re reading the film at face value. But my suggestion would be that as Dani stumbles in her May Queen robe across the open field while the temple is swallowed in flames, it is not Christian (or any of the others) that are burning. It is the relationship that’s burning. The raging inferno represents years of emotional pain, anguish and grief coming to a cataclysmic end in a crescendo that’s downright edifying.
For a film that employs the concept of a language based on pure emotion, that’s exactly what the ending is saying to me; this is meant to be received not in literal terms, but in emotional terms. From that perspective, as the great burning edifice of codependency and toxicity collapses to Bobby Krlic’s soaring, elegiac strings, Dani’s grimace gives way to the first genuinely joyful expression we’ve seen her make in the entire film, because the relationship is finally over. I found it deeply moving.
As I was driving home from seeing the film, I remember thinking that in the screenplay, I’ll bet the last moments include some variation of the words “She is free”. That sentiment was so apparent to me while watching it, it simply had to be there. Reading the screenplay, I was not disappointed —
Midsommar is not a perfect film. I would have liked some more verisimilitude from the supporting friend characters, who felt more like archetypes than people. It also would’ve been interesting if there had been more intentionality behind how Dani’s grief was woven into the larger narrative. As it is now, the blight of her family’s memory only appears in a handful of moments that feel largely disposable, taking a back seat to the codependency allegory. But, all that being said, I found Midsommar extremely effective, unnerving and most surprisingly of all, cathartic. I’m sure I’ll watch it many more times.
As the age-old adage goes, misery loves company. If Midsommar proved anything to me, it’s the universality of relationship woes.
“The goal of the film was about getting to that inevitable ending in a way that feels emotionally surprising.”
That you did, Ari. That you did.