Midsommar is the second feature-length movie from Hereditary director, Ari Aster. So far, it has been highly praised by most reviewers and people in the business. I finally got to watch it myself, and as insufferable as this might sound, it was more of an experience than just a movie for me.
I want to warn people that going in with limited knowledge is likely helpful to the experience, although I would argue not 100% necessary. I had come across a few vague spoilers, and it did little to dampen my experience. I will not be able to discuss everything I’d like while keeping this Impressions piece spoiler-free, but I will attempt to be as vague as possible. As I have done in the past towards the end, I will be discussing something extremely spoiler heavy, but will clearly mark when that begins. So without further ado.
The marketing for the movie is intentionally vague, but the general plotline follows Dani after she has suffered a tragedy. Her boyfriend is friends with Pelle who is from a remote village in Sweden that still follows their old (and pagan) traditions. Pelle invites his friends to come home with him to experience their mid-summer festival and Dani tags along. Unsurprising for any horror fans the village is not exactly what it seems, and things start to devolve.
I will say this for genre fans, Midsommar will stretch the definition of “horror movie” for many viewers. It felt a lot like a darker fairy tale, suffering woman travel to a faraway land and is shaped by her experiences (I have more thoughts on the fairy tale point, but cannot go into detail without spoiling a lot of the movie). And like many of A24’s horror films, it is a slow crawl. Unlike other films, it’s also decidedly not scary, and let me assure you that is not an insult. There were only a few parts of the entire movie where I felt suspense and the usual feelings of fear that horror movies invoke. Instead, Midsommar relies heavily on being a tense experience with truly disturbing moments. So while I might not have been “scared” while watching the movie, I was horrified, uncomfortable, upset, and again tense.
This is a brilliant way to make a horror movie. It challenges expectations and chooses to embrace the genre in new ways. It doesn’t want to make you jump (although it might as some moments), it’s not gore porn, it’s not a mystery that leads to a frightening climax, it sort of stands out with few other horror films in choosing to just give you something that might not scare you but will stick with you and still manages to nail being horrifying.
It also shows off Ari Aster’s skill and growth. I was impressed by Hereditary. It had great cinematography, compelling shots, was artistic, and all-around great to look at. Aster took everything he did right with that movie and ran with it and improved. Midsommar is a damn treat. The setting is lovely, there are brilliant shots that completely blew me away, the outfits, the colors, the way he used shapes to create shots. A person could easily break this movie down shot by shot and not run out of things to say. So much of this movie was enjoyable to just look at as much as it was to watch. The end result is that Midsommar is as darkly beautiful as it was horrifying.
The sound design is also spot on. In crucial moments the score, sound effects, and even the actors help to make sure that the full extent of impact is hit. There is repetition in certain sounds (specifically breathing and crying) that starts to tie things in as a whole and helps to keep the audience unsettled because we begin to associate them with the idea that bad things are coming.
The acting is spot on. Florence Pugh does a fantastic job as Dani, but importantly, all of the surrounding supporting cast also nails their parts.
It also has a compelling relationship with Hereditary, where they manage to counter and compliment each other. This happens in more surface ways. Hereditary embraces darkness and uses it often. Midsommar is almost entirely in the light as a counterpoint. A lot of the imagery is similar, although not repeated enough that you feel like it’s the same.
It also does so with more profound themes. They both deal with women in a state of grief and their struggles dealing with it. At various points, both Dani and Annie are trying to bury their pain only to have it explode. Both heavily feature a pagan like religion that looks at life and death in cycles and treats the subject in a way that makes many people (especially Americans) uncomfortable. Both women struggle with themselves and coming to terms with how they think they should feel and perceive different things and how they actually feel. Without going too much into either movie, Annie struggles more with her role as a woman and a mother, whereas Dani deals primarily in struggles with neglectful and manipulative men.
Also, again, similar devices used, like the framing of shots, repetition of sounds, the use of dreams, etc.
What ends up happening when you start to compare and contrast both of these movies is that you can see them as different yet part of a whole… almost like siblings in an odd way. It has left me curious if Aster intends to let the two stand-alone yet slightly tied, or if we might get a third movie that will help bring all of them full circle in a more spiritual/symbolic way as opposed to literal.
Hands down, this was one of the best movie-going experiences I have had in a while. I walked away with no complaints and lamenting that I couldn’t just sit down and watch it again (and possibly even again after that). Still, I can’t give a blanket recommendation. Midsommar is not for everybody and is certainly not for every horror fan. It is slow, which is to be expected, and focuses just as heavily as what you are seeing from an artistic perspective as what you are experiencing as a moviegoer. It also again, in my opinion, pushes the definition of horror and will leave some genre fans unsatisfied. Much like Hereditary, I would recommend looking at A24’s overall horror library and using it as a touchstone of sorts to help decide. Do you like the horror movies the studio has produced? You are likely to like this one. Do you hate them? This one is unlikely to make a believer of you.
For my part, it’s a damn impressive movie and made me want to revisit some horror movies in the same vein, including, of course, Hereditary. I also cannot wait to be able to sit down and do a back to back viewing, given my above feelings with how the movies create an excellent compliment and counterpoint to each other.
So the spoilers part? (Stop Now if you don’t want spoilers for Midsommar, Hereditary, or The Witch)
This movie falls into the same sort of category as The Witch especially and Hereditary to an extent where people almost see a good ending, and I am not sure I can agree. What I mean is for a lot of people they argue that the suffering that happens ultimately leads to a female lead getting a happy ending. In the case of Thomasin and The Witch, people will talk about the benefits of her getting away from an oppressive and puritanical (pretty much literally) family. She gains her freedom and becomes a seemingly powerful witch. Great, except she is manipulated and controlled into that end. She is not approached with a chance to be a witch and then escapes her family, her family is destroyed slowly, and she is blamed for it. By the time she is given the choice to sign her name away, she is alone, has faced many horrors, and is desperate. She is manipulated into the decision, even if the outcome seems good.
Charlie is temporarily killed, and her family tortured so that she can eventually take over her brother Peter’s body and become the conduit for a god. Once again a female character ultimately ending up powerful (although odd this time since it’s through Peter’s male body). However, as with The Witch, she is not really given a choice, and instead, it is all done for her.
Midsommar is harder to nail. Christian is a horrible person, and Dani is alone and deserves better. Pelle’s village seems welcoming, and the movie does end with Dani smiling after destroying many of her personal demons (in at least one case actually destroying him). She has still gone through many traumas to end up where she is, and I can’t decide where I land on whether or not the village has genuinely accepted her, or manipulated her in being part of what they are doing. Pelle at the very least knows how close to breaking Dani is and seems to want that to happen so that she will be part of the village. He is also rewarded for being intuitive enough (once again another thing to talk about and how Pelle represents the oracle) to bring the group there to have both their sacrifices (the guys) and their new queen (Dani) so it is pretty clear that they had always intended her to end up in this position. The issue of choice is still taken away from Dani as it was with Charlie and Thomasin, but it still feels less… horrible somehow. If the village and Pelle are to be trusted from their words and behavior on face value, they actually do care for Dani and don’t just want her to be there because she’s some random outsider, but because she can benefit from them as much as they her.
It still leaves me feeling a bit hinky, as does the easy acceptance that these are “happy” endings for some viewers. Through the lens of horror films they actually are relatively happy, I just don’t know how I feel about the lack of choice and the horrors women are required to face to get to that point.
I realize I have just thrown a whole extra wrench into this Impressions piece and not come to a conclusion, but it was something I reflected on after seeing this movie and reading some responses.