One of cinema’s most enduring images is of Malcolm McDowell’s A Clockwork Orange character, Alex, with his eyelids pinned open as he’s forced to watch videos of horrible things. If you’ve ever wondered what that might feel like, Ari Aster’s excellent sophomore film Midsommar offers a vivid approximation.
The movie opens with Dani (Florence Pugh) receiving a cryptic message from her bipolar sister and frantically trying to decipher its meaning. The scene plays out in the dead of winter as Dani anxiously tries to decouple her expectations from the desperate drama apparently produced regularly by her sister’s condition. The imagery is dark, dread builds in the shadows, and the horror emanates not from the supernatural, but from the very human sources of mental illness and family strife. These are the subjects of Aster’s first film, Hereditary, and the prologue acts as a thematic bridge between the two movies.
Then the opening credits roll, and Aster quite literally flips the light switch. We’re suddenly in the next chapter of the director’s career. If this were a Monty Python movie, you would expect a title card to read, “And now for something completely different….”
The seasons change and Dani’s boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), tries to strike a balance between being supportive of his emotionally wrecked girlfriend and pursuing his independence on a European guys trip. A Swedish exchange student named Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) has invited his group of American friends to experience a ritual that his community (or commune, as he proudly describes it) conducts just once every ninety summers.
The compromise is that Christian invites Dani to join the trip – crashing it from the perspective of Christian’s two friends Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper). Pelle, on the other hand, projects a sense of genuine hospitality that makes Dani feel welcome.
When the group arrives at the outskirts of the commune, two important things happen. First, they eat psychedelic mushrooms to tap into the “aura” of the land around them. It’s the movie’s first hint at the ever-increasing disorientation that follows – a series of oddities that signal the start a sort of “down the rabbit hole,” twisted fantasy where nothing ever seems quite right. Second, the visitors realize that the midnight sun is exactly as advertised. And we, the audience, realize that whatever happens next will happen in clear view.
The following day, the group is greeted warmly by the rest of the commune’s members. They’re a photogenic and homogenous bunch, with gentle mannerisms and soft voices that invite trust. The place seems idyllic – each member plays a meaningful role – and the community enjoys a big ceremonial meal to begin the festivities.
As the first day of the celebration draws to a sunny close, Pelle describes the commune’s view that life happens in a natural cycle, divided into three parts: youth, working age, and mentorship. The Americans settle in, basking in the locals’ friendliness while trying to better understand their customs. After a night’s sleep, Pelle promises the group will witness a special ritual related to that cycle the next morning.
That ritual is one of the most unsettling things that I can ever recall having seen in a movie. I can close my eyes and see it now, in graphic detail.
I don’t want to spoil its impact, but I’ll say this: as somebody who appreciates creative cinematic violence, I have never been more appalled by its use. Not offended, because the scene is totally necessary for the narrative, just completely and utterly shocked. At the very least, Ari Aster has my respect for showing me something I couldn’t have imagined.
But more than that, the scene – which, of course, takes place in broad daylight – digs a pit in your stomach that gets deeper and deeper as the movie unfolds. I spent the duration of the movie in an uncomfortable state of nausea, not because the movie relies on gore for shock value, but because I was genuinely terrified about what could possibly come next.
That’s all I’ll say about the plot, because having your eyes pinned open without knowing what to expect is part of the experience. And it’s a very worthwhile one, if you think you can tolerate it.
But I do want to say something about the movie’s subtext. Ari Aster described the movie in terms of the character experience. For Dani and Christian, he said it’s a perverse breakup movie (not in the way you might expect). For the other Americans, who are anthropologists, it’s folklore horror. That description is fine on the surface. If you don’t want to read any deeper, it’s a top-notch horror movie.
I think there’s another reading though, and maybe it’s because I feel completely immersed in the socio-political horror show that’s happening right in front of our eyes in America. If you want nothing more than to talk about movies, stop here. Midsommar is a must-see for horror fans.
If you’re willing to hear a bit of my own perspective, I think Midsommar is a movie about the unchecked privilege of claiming the right to act upon one’s claimed sacred beliefs while subjecting others to them without consent. It’s a movie about fanaticism, our subjectivity and biases in evaluating it, and the dangers of empty rhetoric.
One of the cleverest and most subversive elements of Midsommar is that the commune is filled with the kinds of people who are almost never presented as “other” in the media. After the gruesome ritual, the fair-haired, blue-eyed matriarch – who had just unironically praised the gods for providing the hottest summer on record – rushes over to the Americans to offer her sympathy. This is just the way we do things, she assures them, there’s nothing to fear!
It made me think of Donald Trump’s assessment that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the Charlottesville catastrophe. What he meant was that the white supremacists’ behavior can’t be that bad because they’re white. So is the movie’s master race, gallivanting around in the flowered fields of Sweden.
You can imagine the pagan priestess as somebody’s American grandmother. Even in the wake of some horror – maybe a casually racist comment, in this comparison – you want to believe she’s still a good person. If the priestess had darker skin, you can bet the Americans would have taken off running in the movie’s first act. Instead, she and her people are afforded the benefit of the doubt. There’s a temptation to think that, just maybe, she has a good reason for what she believes. But the Americans eventually realize there’s no escape, and her message becomes clearer: the commune’s beliefs should be imposed on everyone else, too. Sound familiar?
Then there’s the carefully named Christian, who plays a key role in this reading. He spends the movie saying the kinds of things you hope he would, playing a sort of archetype. He comforts Dani in her time of need, ingratiates himself to his hosts, and serves as the de facto leader of his friend group. But there’s a hollowness to his words, a severe disconnect between what he presents and how he behaves. In a movie about religious fanaticism, it’s impossible not to think about the vast segment of Trump-supporting American Christians who invoke the teachings of Jesus while acting in ways that are fundamentally opposed to Christ’s mode of living in the world.
In my view, Ari Aster seems to be challenging us to ask ourselves what we’re willing to tolerate in the world – and why we’re willing to tolerate it. As soon as the lights come up in the theater, you just have to look at the world around us to see why those questions are relevant.
Or, hell, maybe it’s just a scary movie and I’m reading too much into it.
Oh! One last thing, on a lighter note. After leading both Midsommar and Fighting with My Family this year, it’s safe to say that Florence Pugh is about to breakout into an impressive career. She’s a great actor. I’d also keep an eye on Vilhelm Blomgren. He’s mesmerizing in every moment he’s on screen.