Home » Arthouse Report » Midsommar


Here’s a riddle for you, gentle readers: When is a horror movie not a horror movie? It’s a surprisingly relevant question, as the market reaches Blumhouse oversaturation and the market begins a new wave of trial and error in search of the Next Big Thing. Thus we have so many “horror” flicks in recent memory that don’t really depend on shocks or jump scares so much as a general feeling of psychological dread.

The recent flicks of Jordan Peele come immediately to mind, as Get Out and Us both depended more on social satire taken to horrifying extremes. Hell, Us outright rejected jump scares by way of a bookending gag. And of course that’s not even getting started on the recent wave of “prestige horror”: low-budget films like The Witch, It Comes at Night, and Hereditary, all of which were made with an emphasis on cinematic craftsmanship and heady ideas rather than cheap thrills and gory kills.

So here we are with Midsommar, the prestige horror film du jour, though it’s really only being marketed as horror because it comes to us from the writer/director of Hereditary. And that’s another movie only labeled as “horror” because it didn’t fit in any other box. Rather, I think it would be more honest to call this movie a psychological thriller, as the suspense of the film comes from our protagonist questioning what’s real as she gets twisted every which way by the rest of the cast.

Though when you get right down to it, this movie really best belongs in the same subgenre as The Endless, Two Thousand Maniacs!, Manos: The Hands of Fate, and perhaps most famously, The Wicker Man. (And maybe Hot Fuzz, if you’re feeling generous.) It’s a movie about some modern urban people visiting an idyllic isolated community full of suspiciously happy yet overly secretive people. Weird shit happens, bodies pile up, our characters get drawn into some fucked-up ritual, hilarity ensues.

Oh, and speaking of The Wicker Man, this one also features a man in a bear costume. Yes, seriously. And we’re just getting started.

Our protagonist is Dani Ardor, played by soon-to-be A-lister Florence Pugh. On top of her crippling anxiety, she’s still in mourning for… well, pretty much her entire family. You see, Dani’s sister suffered from bipolar disorder until she decided to kill herself and take her parents with her. Thus we have a triple-homicide on our hands even before the opening credits roll.

Incidentally, the opening credits don’t roll until 12 minutes into this two-and-a-half-hour movie. I hope you brought your slippers and packed a lunch, folks, because we’re in for one long, slow burn of a movie.

Anyway, Dani is going out with Christian Hughes, played by Jack Reynor. After three years together, their relationship is finally at the breaking point, as Christian finds himself increasingly unable to work on his doctorate thesis while also fulfilling Dani’s overbearing emotional needs. But neither one of them can bring themselves to break it off because Dani still needs her emotional crutch (in spite of herself) and Christian doesn’t want the guilt that would come with dumping a woman after such a traumatic loss.

The catalyst of the plot is Pelle, a fellow student played by Vilhelm Blomgren. Born and raised in the remote Swedish commune of Harga, Pelle is returning home for an annual midsummer festival. And this one is somehow an extra-special festival that only happens once every 90 years, but I don’t recall hearing exactly what makes this one so much more special.

Pelle invites Christian to come along, and Dani more or less invites herself as well. Also on the journey is Josh (William Jackson Harper), an anthropology student writing his thesis on midsummer festivals in different European cultures. Rounding out the crew is Mark (Will Poulter), a boorish womanizing asshole brought along for the obvious dual purpose of comic relief/cannon fodder. Still, at least the character is effective comic relief in a way that’s fun to hate. Compare that to Ellora Torchia and Archie Madekwe, both of whom play characters who are sadly disposable and unmemorable.

There’s not a whole lot more I can say about the film without getting into spoilers, but it really doesn’t matter. This is, after all, a two-and-a-half-hour movie, there are no deaths between the 12-minute and 60-minute marks, and the big revelations don’t come until the last half-hour or so. The filmmakers put such a huge emphasis on setup that the payoff almost seems like an afterthought. In fact, the filmmakers put so much time and effort into the setup that no payoff could have possibly been worth it. And indeed, virtually nobody who’s sat through any of the previously mentioned films will be surprised by much of anything after sitting through two hours of this film.

On the other hand, the journey itself can be greatly entertaining even if the destination is lackluster. (Just ask any fan of Stephen King. Or J.J. Abrams.) The village of Harga is really the star here, and it’s genuinely impressive how much detail went into crafting this independent culture. The production design, the costume design, the choreography, the world-building… it’s all immaculate. Moreover, it certainly helps that the film takes place in the far north during the longest day of the year, which means that every corner of this setting is pretty much always brightly lit for us to see.

Additionally, while the revelations weren’t always worthy of the setup, they weren’t completely without value either. My personal favorite example comes near the end, when I was howling with laughter along with the rest of the audience as we sat through the most unintentionally hilarious sex scene since Showgirls. Another fine example comes at the hour-mark, in which we see two people get brutally slain in unflinching detail.

The visuals as a whole are incredible from start to finish. I was genuinely impressed with the filmmakers’ use of reflective surfaces and background action so we could see everything in one disturbingly long take. Writer/director Ari Aster has a demonstrated skill for silence, knowing exactly how long to draw something out and/or when to cut in for maximum tension and impact. Also, when the characters are high on drugs, the sensations are accompanied by special effects that are simplistic but still look really cool.

Then we have all the symbolism and world-building at play. I was especially fond of the storytelling tapestry that led to an expertly delivered gross-out gag later on. Even so, my favorite example is still probably the recurring image of cars. Given that Dani’s sister killed herself and her parents with carbon monoxide poisoning, the tired symbols of cars and exhaust smoke as symbols of urbanization and our poisoned environment take on several new terrifying layers when seen through Dani’s perspective.

So far as I can tell, the single most prominent theme of the movie is in its examination of groupthink. At its heart and core, this is a movie all about how any atrocity can be morally justified when backed by enough tradition, authority, social pressure, etc. It’s amazing what people will do to fit in, especially when they don’t have the option of arguing back or even thinking about it for a second. And it’s particularly easy for someone like Dani — her family is dead, her friends barely tolerate her presence, her therapist clearly isn’t doing the job well enough, and Dani still desperately needs a support network. So where else is she going to find one?

There’s a lot going on in this movie, but I’m not convinced it was enough to justify the runtime. After all, if anyone with half a brain can already tell where all of this is going based on the premise alone, is it really worth drawing out the movie for the sake of some pretty visuals and thorough world-building? It also doesn’t help that for how long the movie is, virtually none of that time was spent on developing the characters. In fact, with the sole and debatable exception of Dani, it seemed like every character in the movie got more shallow and less sympathetic as the movie went on. Christian is the most obvious example, starting out as a decent guy with the misfortune to be stuck in over his head, only to end up as a self-serving cowardly prick.

Back in my review of Hereditary, I said that film was “definitely one of those times in which stellar presentation saves a subpar story. The premise is threadbare, the characters are stock, and the hole-ridden plot is so dependent on arbitrary nonsense that I couldn’t care less about how any of this fugazi occultism is supposed to work.” While the occultist material in Midsommar is bolstered by superior world-building and production design, the rest of that quotation definitely applies to Midsommar. The visuals are fantastic throughout, the themes of social pressure are intriguing in this context, and the gross-out factor is beautifully innovative in places, but all of that and the slow-burn pacing aren’t enough to justify the excessive runtime.

Overall, this gets a solid home video recommendation. The visuals might not be quite as impressive on a smaller screen, but it’ll be worth it to pause and/or fast-forward through the slower segments. Plus, it’s entirely possible that this movie — riding perfectly on the line between authentic genius and pretentious garbage — may not be your thing, so I’d definitely recommend the cheaper option just in case.

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