Featured Image via A24
With 2018’s Hereditary, filmmaker Ari Aster plumbed the tangled morass of loss and traumatic legacy within the presumed sacrosanct confines of the family circle.
It was a cold and eerie unearthing of the truth that inevitably dwells within the tree, the dawning reality that your family really was deliberately sowing ill all along, and that menace may be baked within the actual design. It’s a cruel potential that is left exposed within that story — it’s downright mean, to be absolutely honest — and lingering notes of it withstand Aster’s newest horror engagement, Midsommar, upending a breakup story with a critical examination of cult-as-salvation.
In any other era, it might be more of a gas, but its connection to our present-day sociopolitical reality and the white supremacist nationalist themes inescapable in our American sosh meeds seems to hang heavy over the production, an invisible cloud in the pitilessly blue skies.
Dani (Florence Pugh) is a young woman in the final days of her frayed relationship with Christian(Jack Reynor), ill-prepared for a greater and cruel familial tragedy which serves as Midsommar’s ghastly introduction. While this is all going on, she understandably fails to read her boyfriend’s readiness to fully detach, duly goaded by the sniggering approval of his entourage, a pack of grad student anthropology nerd-bros readying for a 50/50 educational/recreational trip to Sweden.
Among these, the calm-eyed and unflappable Pelle is the most visibly excited, looking forward to introducing Dani and the crew to his Swedish commune family of blonde robed hallucinogen-swilling pagan caucasians prepping for their special, once-in-a-century festival celebrated on sanctioned idyllic land.
The film frequently hangs upon Pugh’s performance, whose vulnerable, bedraggled distance to these veritable adversaries to a checked out boyfriend — thinking he’s being sensibly polite in dragging her into a drastically alien landscape out of misplaced sympathy. These aspects are painfully detailed and observed and uncomfortable.
Aster purposefully established Midsommar as a breakup film, a captivating energy for the horror genre which amplifies its aspects of betrayal to a kaleidoscopic denouement.
You don’t have to dig very far to find the fractured romance notes he’s adding, but they’re woven into the plot and procession in a way that is never made a formal requisite to enjoy the imagery and pageantry of the experience. The cult are a grinning wide-eyed white menace, terrifying on their own merit without invoking the greater opportunity they provide Dani’s isolation as a serviceable armor for the unpredictable outer world.
This means that most can freely enjoy the film purely on its aesthetic presentation, its grotesque presence and feel which almost gleefully contrasts with its unrepentant sunniness, a quality presented honestly in the trailer. The sun isn’t sent on Hälsingland for the procession, and its green hills and landscaped environs are the perfect foil for the more earnest and sinister designs these cultists have on its voyeurs.
Plainly expressed: it’s a film mechanic that works much more of the time than it doesn’t, and grants a rich restlessness to it that lesser movies might have mishandled. No, Midsommar exuberantly succeeds because there is more to its inner workings than what meets the eye and ear, but what meets them is still hypnotic, convulsively dark, and ultimately compelling.
Part of that comes from the meticulous set design, which offers absorbing hand-painted narratives tucked into every corner of the final print. The people of color who occupy the goings-on fare very poorly.
In addition to Christian’s African-American frenemy Josh (The Good Place‘s William Jackson Harper, who delivers an understated but precise performance) is an unrelated pair of tourists from the UK, whose relationship is noticeably hardier than that of Dany and Christian’s, coming to enjoy this slice of country life at their own peril.
Expectedly, these Black & Brown guests face despicable ends at the hands of the menacing heifer-weisen. Brown folk obviously have a perilous history in American horror, of that there is no doubt, but Midsommar seemingly qualifies that history further by punishing their presence, which isn’t a mere confirmation or approval of the trope.
That’s a lot of stuff and nonsense to say: people of color die in this movie, and they die hideously, raggedly. They are sacrificed with religious zeal, bodies disgustingly twisted and absorbed into some under-described metaphorical meaning, and whether those deaths are profoundly positioned or just genre-predictable is up to the viewer to decide, but they feel meaningfully in step with what the movie wants to say about racism and predation and conquest.
I posit this: Midsommar is having a conversation with the viewer about herd mentality and the laden conversation being had on social media and in congressional halls, this push-pull miasma between white nationalism and its exposure, the next evolutionary step in the American experiment.
It’s because these communities that reliably fester past the edges of our actual and virtual social environments offer more than the simplistic opportunity of trolling; rather, they extend a sick sense of family to the damaged and embittered slackjaws which rustle to their call.
Dani is damaged but hardened and never fully robbed of her agency, a precarious expectation for the central woman character in a horror film. It’s hard to even describe her as an avatar for the viewer because her experience is so specific, and what manifests in her wake isn’t necessarily relatable to most, just disturbingly reasonable.
In a mirrored sense, audiences can detach from Midsommar, appreciate the cinematographic vistas and movements and staging under its perpetually baby-blue skies. The soundtrack, almost all of which seems incidental, musters its own meditative yet dramatized lullaby. It adds to the film’s sick and deranged sense of mania, making any specific comment it’s attempting about fringe societies cheerfully roping in the rope-in-able not fully hardened after a single viewing.
Racism isn’t always sharply contained in the smartphone video of an endless supply of self-important hateful idiots at a barbecue or lemonade stand — sometimes it stands with glazed eyes, in line with its history, dispassionate and resolved and immobile, slightly smiling. The latter is older, more terrifying, and impossible for others to shame or satisfyingly expose. It doesn’t have wi-fi or a Twitter account, choosing to live out in the hinterlands, isolated in its own crackpot knowledge and customs, under a sun which never sets.
To attempt communication is a foolish endeavor…they’ve already sucked down the hallucinogen-laced kool-aid long ago and are merely waiting for it to kick in.