There's more than meatballs and Ikea bookshelves in the Sweden of Ari Aster's Midsommar film.
Midsommar (2019), directed by Ari Aster from his own script; starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper, and Mark Poulter.
Caution: Spoilers Galore
I feel a bit silly posting a review of this film months after everyone else saw it, but it’s too interesting to let go without comment, so here goes.
Midsommar is the sophomore release of writer/director Ari Aster, who shook up the horror world with his complex, much-lauded and disturbing film, Hereditary (2018). I had my problems with Hereditary’s plot, but overall, I have to concede it’s a well-made film.
The same can be said for Midsommar. It’s not my favorite horror movie of last year, but it’s definitely the one that sticks in my mind the most. Which is what a good horror film is supposed to do.
The plot centers around a college student in her mid-twenties named Dani (Florence Pugh). In the opening scenes, Dani loses her whole immediate family when her crazy sister kills their parents and then herself. Understandably devastated, Dani turns to her long-term boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) for support -- which Christian can’t provide. Christian, a graduate anthropology student, has been wanting to break up with Dani for months, but has put it off so she has time to grieve.
In steps Pelle (pronounced Pella), played very well by Villhelm Blomgren, a Swedish classmate of Christian and his pals Josh (William Jackson Harper)and Mark (Will Poulter). Pelle, who grew up on an obscure commune in rural Sweden, invites the trio to attend a special Midsommar celebration in his homeland that only occurs once in every ninety years. Christian half-heartedly invites Dani to tag along -- expecting her to decline -- but she accepts.
Once the four Americans arrive at the commune with Pelle, they are introduced to two other visitors, Connie and Simon from London (Ellora Torchia and Archie Madekwe). The visitors are also given some unidentified psychedelic drugs, which is a regular occurrence throughout their stay -- sometimes without their knowledge.
The four Americans and two Brits are introduced to the customs and rituals of the commune members, which at first appear wholesome -- singing, dancing, communal eating, working in the gardens, baking bread, maintaining a relentlessly cheerful manner. Nevertheless, odd things drop into these scenes with a creepy casualness: a strange, pyramid-shaped yellow building that’s off-limits to non-commune members; a live bear in a small cage; a red-haired maiden who constantly stares at Christian. The visitors accept these weird things as part of the local culture, which they intend to study for a graduate anthropology dissertation.
The weirdness turns suddenly violent when two elderly members ceremoniously jump off of a high cliff onto a large rock below. The second jumper misses hitting the rock and is horribly mangled, but still alive. A type of priest and a couple of members then approach him and bash his brains out with a giant mallet. Everyone in the commune describes the proceedings as a “great joy” for elderly members “completing their life cycle.”
The PC Americans are shocked but say nothing, afraid to appear as cultural bigots; only the Londoners, Connie and Simon, protest. Appalled, Connie and Simon leave the next day. Later Josh and Mark also disappear, along with a sacred book from the yellow temple, and everyone assumes they stole the book. Dani and Christian argue and grow farther apart, while Pelle subtly promotes himself as a partner for Dani.
More weird rituals follow, including a contest to choose the festival's May Queen. Dani, who is growing closer to the commune, wins the contest, not knowing exactly what being May Queen entails.
It's not good to be the queen. As the film draws to a close, Dani discovers that the title of May Queen comes with being forced to choose between Christian or Pelle for a human sacrfice ritual. She also discovers the purpose of the bear, the meaning of the yellow temple, and what really happened to Simon, Connie, Josh, and Mark. If you’ve seen the landmark folklore horror film The Wicker Man (1973), you know what awaits the man whom the May Queen chooses. However, Aster does throw in a few bells and whistles to make the ending a bit different, and therefore, worth watching.
What works for me: The cinematographer creates a pastoral environment filled with flowers, meadows and rosy-cheeked dancing maidens. It's a great contrast to the grim proceedings. Some viewers dislike the slow build-up to the very weird and disturbing finale, but it didn’t bother me that much, exception for the frequent chanting in Swedish, a language that sounds deeply annoying to a non-native-speaker (sorry, Swedish people, but it’s true.)
Also, I like the clever idea of making Pelle the chief villain -- he’s so affable, honest, open, and polite that the viewer doesn’t realize he’s the main villain until very close to the end. In fact, the whole commune projects an air of honesty and innocence. They're murderers, but they act like nothing is wrong with their bloody activities -- that's just the way things are. They're willing to sacrifice some of their own along with the outsiders, so it's fair, right?
What doesn’t work for me: Tone. There’s a peculiar affect threading through this film that puts me off of it in a big way. (I also disliked the same thing about Hereditary.) Aster has not a single shred of sympathy for his characters. At times, his camera seems clinically detached from them, and at other times, cruelly mocking of their plight. The average by-the-numbers 80s slasherfest treated its doomed characters more humanely than Aster does here. The characters are also flat, unlikable, and self-absorbed, just as in Aster's first film. These are big “buts” for me and why I can’t give Midsommar more than a 7/10. However, I will also probably watch it again, which is a high compliment from me.
The theatrical cut is currently streaming on Amazon, free to Prime members. There is also a director’s cut on Blu-Ray which contains additional scenes. You can watch the deleted scenes on YouTube -- there is one that humanizes Dani and the commune members a little bit, which is why it was probably cut.