If I’m being perfectly honest with myself, I’ve been pretty disillusioned with the horror genre in recent months. I really do hate to be the kind of old man that groans “they don’t make them like they used to” but I really do think that horror today isn’t as strong as it was years ago. Take the past two weeks, where the two biggest horror releases were both new installments in aging properties that received middling reviews and performed below expectations, oddly both featuring creepy dolls. Out of all of the horror movies I’ve seen in the past year, the only one that I would legitimately call interesting would be Us because at least that movie had an agenda and message that was worth examining and discussing. However, it’s still not a shining example of excellent horror when it’s compared to Jordan Peele’s previous horror classic, Get Out.
Enter Ari Aster, who made his big horror debut last year with Hereditary, a movie that had a smart premise but slowly collapsed on itself as it reached its conclusion. It’s still fine enough, and I will give Aster credit for creating an original horror film that was actually scary, but an instant classic it was not. That’s why his next feature film, Midsommar, caught me off guard. It didn’t look like your standard horror movie, resulting in several of us at the Flixist office being full of trepidation before release. Does Midsommar fulfill the promise of elevating Aster into the echelon of modern horror elites?
Director: Ari Aster
Release Date: July 2, 2019
Dani (Florence Pugh) is in a relationship that I wouldn’t call abusive, but she is definitely not receiving the support she needs from her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). Christian is emotionally distant from her in her time of need and is fairly egotistical, arranging a trip to Sweden with his friends in order to study the Midsommar festival of a local village where one of their mutual friends Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) grew up. Of course, he doesn’t tell Dani about it. She finds out and decides to join them for the nine day festival, much to the chagrin of all of Christians’s friends except Pelle. Then as is the case with all cults, things start to get too real too quick for every outsider present.
Going into Midsommar, the only point of reference I had for what to expect out of this was from The Wicker Man. On the surface, the connection makes sense. Both movies involve an outsider entering a religious town only to discover there’s something nefarious afoot that will most likely end poorly for them. However, comparing the two isn’t really fair since both take a different approach to the genre. Don’t forget, The Wicker Man is a mystery at its core, where the main character is trying to track down a missing girl before something bad happens to her. Midsommar paints its plot as a vacation of sorts, a trip to a far off, strange place where strange things happen. Both have the same concept, but Midsommar frames itself as being a happy and jolly horror movie instead of a dour and serious one.
The cult is never actually portrayed as being purely evil. You would think a movie like this would show the cult as a group of babbling maniacs obsessed with ritual sacrifice, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. They’re portrayed as being pleasant. They’re friendly, welcoming Dani and her friends with open arms and being accommodating to their needs within reason. When one of Christian’s friends ask to see the group’s sacred texts, the leader is all too willing to show them to teach him what life is like in their community. Therein lies the true horror of this cult; all of its members are good people.
The horror of Midsommar doesn’t come from gore or from spooky imagery, but from how easy it is to understand how cults can be so effective. They act as a family to each other and will comfort any and all in need. The cult shares emotions the same way they share oxygen. If Dani is sad and crying, a hoard of people will come to her and cry with her and use their energy to help change her cries of sorrow into cries of laughter. It may look insane how someone could ever enter a cult like the Manson Family or Heaven’s Gate, but Midsommar shows just how easy it is to indoctrinate a person into such a group, and that realistic understanding a person’s psychology is outright terrifying.
Outside of Dani, who’s mental insecurities can be painfully relatable for some, the other characters don’t play that much of a focus. You would think that Christian’s ego would play a large part in generating conflict with the cult, his ego, as well as the goals of his friends, don’t matter due to the environment they’re placed in. This is a vacation into a strange land where the laws of man and nature are tossed aside. This is a cult where an inbred named Rueben writes their holy texts, life cycles are strictly upheld, and there is sunlight for 21 hours in the day because Sweden is weird like that. So the outsiders, Dani included, are visitors in the same way we are. We are outsiders looking into a crazy world that is perfectly normal for its inhabitants. Anthropologists eat your heart out.
Even then we still don’t know everything about this cult. Some characters, practices, and traditions are left as a complete mystery, and I swear that Aster was going to do a Buckaroo Banzai where an item was mentioned early into the film and was never going to be addressed again. When we do learn about the cult and their practices, it’s never stated aloud. We’re meant to read between the lines and I’ll fully admit that a lot passed way over my head when I first processed it. When Pelle and Dani had a heart to heart about their personal tragedies, it wasn’t until the very end of the movie that a few strange lines of dialogue clicked for me and made me rethink that entire conversation.
Visually, Midsommar is breathtaking. Not only are shots beautifully composed and blasting with color and sunlight — a rarity for most horror films — but the shots are just simply gorgeous. Not a scene went by where I was staring in awe at the sheer beauty that was on screen. Maybe it was a trick of the camera during a driving scene, or how the camera slowly panned over a tapestry, or maybe just how a group of characters were shot in a dark room as the background slowly warped around them, but nearly every shot here deserves to be analyzed and appreciated for how stunning they are. If I could, this review would have an entire gallery dedicated to the screenshots of the movie so I can just direct your attention to those instead of attempting to describe them. They need to be seen to be believed.
At nearly two and a half hours, this is a relatively long movie horror movie that could be a bit too long for some. The length is made worse by how most of the runtime is spent just aimlessly following the characters as they participate in the festival. It can definitely drag at times, and I wouldn’t blame you if you thought that when the movie stops to have two people walk to dinner and gurgle at each other. However, the dynamic camera work and the raw nature of Pugh’s performance are enough to carry it through to the end. Just when you think the movie is about to sag, it hits you with a real shocker of a moment that commands your undivided attention. As we were introduced to the cult, I was waiting for the moment when it clicked for the main characters that something was rotten in the state of Denmark, but I’m pleasantly surprised how subdued that moment was while being a real punch to the gut. It wasn’t painted in any specific Hollywood thrills. It just happened and made my skin crawl.
But the biggest challenge that many will have coming into the film will be its ending. Aster was notorious for having the ending to Hereditary disappoint the hardcore horror crowd, so he really needed to nail this one. And he sort of does? If you’re expecting a non-traditional ending, you may be a bit disappointed. You’ll probably know what’s going to happen because, well, it’s a horror movie about a cult, but the framing of the ending is what really took me off guard, recontextualizing Dani’s character in a new light. Never did I expect the final shot to be as off putting as it was, but the more I thought about it the more it made sense. It’s the difference between reading a plot synopsis of a book on Wikipedia and actually reading the book. Sure, you know the bullet points and how the plot progresses, but the framing of each conversation and each scene is what really pushes it forward.
Shock of all shocks, but I absolutely loved Midsommar. This single-handedly reinvigorated my interest in the horror genre while also disappointing me that nothing is probably going to be as good, as unsettling, or as sensational as this. It’s that good. It’s so good that it’s going to be an uphill battle for any movie that is eyeing to be my favorite film of 2019. I was captivated from the very first frame to the very last frame, and few movies have ever accomplished that feat for me. The Hannibal imagery didn’t hurt either.
If you’re on the fence about Midsommar, I can safely say this isn’t the horror movie for everyone. It’s long, very artsy, and isn’t scary in the traditional sense. It’s more disturbing than scary, and you’ll have to accept that you’re just playing tourist like the main characters. But the world that you’re drawn into is a world that you are not going to forget anytime soon and should leave you as floored as I was. THIS is how you make a horror movie. I’ll say it as simply as possible.
Go. Watch. Midsommar.