Ari Aster’s latest horror film depicts a group of young Americans encountering a strange pagan community in Sweden.
In last year’s horror film stand-out Hereditary, director Ari Astor explored the darkness of an abusive family history. Now in his latest film, Midsommar, the horror takes place in full daylight, in a world of sunshine and flowers that is more sinister precisely because of the absence of shadows.
As the film begins, Dani, a young American graduate student played by Florence Pugh, suffers an unspeakable family tragedy involving her parents and bipolar sister. In a time of shock and grief she leans on her boyfriend Christian, played by Jack Reynor, and he’s there to hold her as she cries. But some time later, she learns that he’s agreed to go to Sweden for a few months, on the invitation of a friend in the anthropology department named Pelle, whose family is from Halsingland, in the northern part of that country. Pelle has invited another friend, Josh, working on a PhD in ancient European midsummer ceremonies, to come witness this midsummer celebration at his Swedish home, and Christian and Mark, a smart aleck played by Will Poulter, are coming along for the ride. This is all news to Dani, and she’s upset that Christian hadn’t seen fit to tell her about this yet, even though the trip is happening in two weeks. She decides she wants to go too, and Christian reluctantly invites her.
This is all a set-up to the film’s main story, and we the audience anticipate trouble, naturally, from a plot involving a community practicing an old pagan rite out in the middle of nowhere. It’s the nature of the destination that is a mystery, and along with that come deeper themes concerning assumptions about ourselves, our social norms, our relationships, and a lot more. And this, I think, is what makes the film interesting, and yes, scary.
I need to tread lightly here, because this is one of those films where you really want to avoid spoilers. I will say that the story involves the taking of hallucinogens at one point, where my immediate response was “Uh oh, bad idea.” In fact, one of the pleasures of being frightened in this case is the very patient and gradual development of tension, in which one finds oneself saying, “No, don’t do that,” or “Get out of there,” and so on. On a side note, I’ll mention that Aster creates the most convincing simulation of a psychedelic drug experience that I’ve seen on film.
But more importantly than any of that is the undercurrent of menace involved in what I would call “cultic” behavior. It’s difficult to resist the urge to conform to the benign seeming customs of a group with a different culture than one is used to. This community in Halsingland is very friendly and, in their white robes and hair decked with flowers, quite beautiful. The midnight sun creates an atmosphere of gentle brightness and oneness with nature, and we’re not inclined to associate Sweden with anything dangerous or evil. All this is skillfully used by Aster, who also wrote the story, in order to heighten the effect. And here I feel compelled to say something which may seem dumb or obvious, but in any case, if you don’t like being disturbed and frightened, don’t go to this movie.
Florence Pugh is an English actress, but she does a perfect American accent here. And she’s excellent at conveying the vulnerability and shifting emotional states of her character, Dani. An important aspect of all this is that she hasn’t been given a way to process her grief or her trauma, and her boyfriend seems distant. Christian and his friends are in some ways typically American in that they have no tools to reckon with wild and unruly emotions. Their beliefs and their loyalties are shallow. We accept that as part of the plot, as normal, but it’s actually central to the meaning of the film.
I’m not easily scared by a film, but this one managed to do that, and I think this is due to more than just the clever story and confident direction. There’s a primal fear at the heart of Midsommar, the fear that something inside of us is fundamentally wrong.