Horror has long been associated with the night. The boogey man hiding in the shadows. The creeping threats that come out after dark. Horror protagonists hunker down and try to make it until dawn. when the vampires can no longer pursue you. For that reason, one of the most wonderfully fiendish horror tricks to my mind is the realization that simple daylight cannot protect us. True horror cannot be slowed down by ultraviolet rays. I remember seeing the great Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches at eight years old and being shaken by the notion of a threat that can follow you anywhere. The child hero escapes the hall full of witches and bursts out into the piercing sunlight. But it doesn’t matter. The witches chase him wherever he flees. They chase him right into the room where his grandmother is sleeping. They catch him and cast their wicked spell upon him and no amount of sunshine can do a thing to save him. More recently, I think of Olivier Assayas’ arty ghost story Personal Shopper, where a haunted Kristein Stewart flees an overcast Paris for the sands of Morocco, hoping that the apparition she keeps seeing will dissipate like a wisp of fog in the desert sun. It does not work. How very disturbing is the idea of fears that will not leave us no matter where we go. In Ari Aster’s masterful follow-up to his equally masterful horror debut, a young woman suffers an unspeakably horrific family tragedy and tries to ease her trauma by taking a summer vacation in Sweden. The fear and anguish follow her there and she realizes that there are demons we can’t truly escape. The worst horror will not be kept at bay by a jolly holiday. It will go along with us to the happiest beachside resort or the most idyllic mountain chalets. If you are to prevail over the ghost of crushing trauma, you will have to eventually stop retreating and face it.
To be clear, Midsommar is not in any way a supernatural horror film. There are no spirits, no witches, and no curses to be seen. The horror is strictly of the psychological kind. In an almost indecently ominous opening, set in a dark and wintry patch of Utah, an unanswered phone rings in the bedroom of an older couple. The person trying desperately to reach them is Dani (Florence Pugh, a subtle and powerful marvel here, just as she was in her Oscar-nominated work in Little Women), a young psychology graduate student living in New York. She has just received a disturbing Facebook message from her manic depressive sister and is now unable to get a hold of anyone in her family. With no one picking up the phone, Dani has no one to turn to but her unattentive boyfriend of four years, Christian (Jack Reynor, the very picture of handsome male entitlement), who is currently out having drinks with male friends and telling them for the hundredth time about how he wants to dump her. He answers the phone reluctantly and tries to calm his panicking girlfriend, though this mostly amounts to downplaying the urgency of the situation and putting Dani down for always acquiescing to her sister’s episodes. In the end, Christian’s half-hearted consolations amount to nothing, because the very worst thing happens and Dani finds herself with no family outside of the self-centered, gaslighting shlub she is still somehow attached to. Attached is an understatement. Dani puts up with no end of thoughtlessness from Christian, who can barely disguise the apathy he feels for his grieving partner. In his latest bit of inconsiderate behavior, he has failed to tell Dani about a boys trip to the Swedish countryside that is taking place only two weeks later. He offers her the facile excuse that he had not officially decided to go until this minute, but the sullenly annoyed expressions on his friends’ faces tell us all we need to know. Christian’s friends clearly regard Dani as something of a burden, which is a belief Christian does nothing to disabuse them of. Christian’s hope is that, given her bereaved state, Dani will not want to come to Sweden with them, but she chooses to come along. Lost in a thick fog of numb trauma, punctuated by regular bursts of howling anguish, Danie doesn’t know what else to do with herself, and maybe the sunny, pastoral change of scenery will be of some comfort. As it happens, one of Christian’s friends is bringing them to the bucolic, rural commune that raised him as a child and their visit happens to be at the same time as a grand nine-day rebirth festival that the small community observes once every ninety years. This being a horror movie, it goes without saying there is more to this festival than meets the eye. I won’t spoil the Wicker Man of it all or what the significance of the commune’s rituals are, but what I can say is that what Dani finds in the tiny Swedish village of Horge is both viscerally upsetting and improbably valuable. Midsommar is a sly, grisly tweak on that old college rite of passage: going abroad.
In its own foreboding, psychologically unhinged way, Midsommar builds to a finale of overpowering catharsis. The consequences of that catharsis are destructive and demented, but the feeling is also strangely sublime, even bitterly euphoric. Midsommar is a film full of shocking, bloody events, but the tone of its gorgeous, orgiastically colorful conclusion also feels tender in a diabolical way. What it boils down to is that Ari Aster is a master of establishing the most gutting kind of tone. Even as downright evil things start happening, what we care most about isn’t the rising body count, but Dani’s journey to find some release, from her trauma and from the circle of callous louts that pass for her support system. As he showed in Hereditary , Aster has an ability to tap into what trauma and grief and relational dysfunction feel like at their most intense. He can render familial tragedy the way Hieronymous Bosch painted the underworld, with both ellish specificity and skin-crawling inscrutability. His films fairly hum with menace even when we’re just watching a couple family members talk to one another. Midsommar drops us without warning into what is arguably 3029’s greatest opening; ten of the most rivetingly anxious minutes of filmmaking any horror film has featured. And then we linger in that trauma the whole film, but things sort of get better, lighter if only by comparison. I think the idea is to capture how, when you’ve gone through something ineffably terrible, healing is a messy and confusing process and the things that help ease you through that pain might not always be completely healthy. Sometimes you deal with it by drinking too much. Sometimes you find relief in the bosom of an insidious commune of Swedish pagans. I guess you can’t judge a person too harshly for how they choose to move forward from a place of lonesome, unimaginable grief.
Midsommar is also a great entry in the canon of women trying to free themselves from unfulfilling, suffocating relationships. Christian isn’t your standard issue domestic abuser, but he represents a subtler and probably more pervasive kind of toxicity; a more virulent strain of misogyny. He waves away her concerns, makes her feel like a weight around his neck, and undermines her already precarious sense of emotional support. He is the kind of self-serving boor too oblivious to even recognize his own priggishness. Dani is painfully dependent on him, desperate for any scrap of affection or reassurance he might idly toss her way. The tone of Midsommar is unmistakably that of feverish horror, but it’s possible to see it as almost a Grand Guignol kind of comedy. Like American Psycho, the content is bloody and disturbing, but there’s understated humor in the context. The idea that it takes a devilish cult to make a bright young woman rediscover her self-worth and maybe finally leave her sullen shlub of a boyfriend is kind of a dryly funny idea. It’s also rather a moving one, which gets us back to the trickiness of trauma. In the end, Dani leaving this negging, unsympathetic manchild for a psychotic Swedish commune is just trading one evil for a different one, but it feels strangely like progress, certainly to Dani. Midsommar contemplates what is worse: unhealthy support or no support at all. The friend who invites them to Sweden comforts Dani on having to endure a crushing tragedy without anyone to step in and ease her pain. Growing up in this collectivist subculture, he had people there for him when he lost his parents at an early age. “I have always felt held,” he tells her. Ari Aster’s deep and disorienting horror gem tells the story of a woman caught between the poles of emotional abandonment and a deeply disturbed kind of community. It should not be surprising that she might eventually reject the one who puts her down and run into the open arms of people who want to lift her up.
Midsommar reveals itself to be an unexpectedly feminist film (nothing remotely nice happens to women in Aster’s Hereditary). For all its many vices, the commune of Horge respects its women. They do not feel shame or stigma about sex or the female body. They openly celebrate the time when an adolescent girl comes of age and can play her role in creating new life. The leader of the festival is an older woman and the commune’s men look up to her. They seem to sincerely value the wisdom and counsel of their female colleagues. The village women are kind to Dani, interested in her, attentive to her. Christian ends up cheating on her with a teenage girl. When Dani catches him, she runs to a nearby barn and begins sobbing hysterically. In what may be the film’s most arresting scene, a group of women flock to her side and, without a word, sob in unison with her. This is what female solidarity looks like in Horge. They don’t ignore your grief or flatly rationalize it for you or brush it aside as a nuisance. They take part in it with you until it passes and you can feel whole again. Beneath its nervy, unhinged trappings, Midsommar is kind of like a demonic version of the old girls trip narrative, where a woman shakes off her heartbreak and learns to live again. Think of Midsommar as How Stella Got Her Groove Back, but replace Taye Diggs with a matriarchal pagan cult. Of all the wild genre combinations 2019 came up with, “graphically bloody female empowerment horror” has to rank up there as the wildest of them all.
Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” Just two films in, is there a filmmaker this side of Stanley Kubrick who understands and demonstrates that philosophy better than Ari Aster? In Hereditary, the family unit is treated like the most arcane Medieval torture device; every miscommunication and resentment its own lash. It is about a family that has never really known harmony and never will. The one peacemaker in their clan comes off as a toothless, ineffectual nebbish. If peace among people were possible, Aster’s films cackle, we’d have figured it out a long time ago. Intentionally or unintentionally, through malice or human error, people were designed to torment one another. If people are made for each other, it is only with the most disquieting of connotations. The punchline of Midsommar is that an Aster charcater finally finds something halfway resembling peace, but only by surrendering herself to a throng of ritualistic sociopaths. Ari Aster’s brand of nihilism is undiluted. It is many galaxies away from even the sardonic grimness of a Coen Brothers film. For a lot of people, I could see Aster’s movies being too much, too dark, too abrasive. I’m an empathy-obsessed romantic who loves Singin’ In the Rain and the gentle humanism of Richard Linklater films. By all logic, I should be one of those people turning away in shock. But his blistering, weaponized tone is just too spectacular to be denied. I love his deranged commitment to vicious, cerebral discomfort altogether too much. This is fine, potent stuff. I wouldn’t put on an Aster film idly or every day. I also don’t listen to Norwegian black metal every day, but I respect the Hell out of the craft and putting it on every now and again keeps things interesting. Midsommar is the most divine kind of cinematic misery and I heartily encourage you to subject your senses to it. Don’t be squeamish. A little black coffee is good for the spirit.