My Midsommar Night’s Scream

DAY ONE – ATTESTUPA

Summer is mercifully coming to a close and I thought it would be seasonally appropriate for me to vomit a handful of words of appreciation about one of my favorite movies to come out this year: Ari Aster’s rootin’ tootin’ cultin’ bear burnin’ feel-good-hit-of-the-Midsommar. I was fortunate enough to catch the director’s cut (because I’m a sick, sad masochist) last weekend at the Lyric in Fort Collins and was pleasantly shocked to see that their big theater was positively packed with like-minded sickos as myself. I can only imagine that it looked that way in theaters across the country as screenings of the director’s cut took place. It’s clear that Midsommar, possibly moreso than it’s equally-fucked predecessor Hereditary, has struck a chord with modern film audiences. I, obviously, loved it enough to do my best impression of a film critic and do a deep dive into all the dark ingredients that make Midsommar such an intense, challenging, and cathartic experience. And so, without any further blathering, let’s raise our glasses, and let our nine day feast commence. Skål!

WARNING – THIS ESSAY CONTAINS SPOILERS AND STUFF

DAY TWO – IT BREAKS DOWN YOUR DEFENSES

Midsommar is not for everyone. Ari Aster’s savant-like ability to unsettle and terrorize his audience might seem overly sadistic to your average moviegoer. That average moviegoer is probably not wrong. A truly compassionate filmmaker wouldn’t fill our heads with lingering shots of a little girl’s decaying head or instant replays of an old man’s face being crushed with King Dedede’s friggin’ hammer. I didn’t think that there would be any outdoing of poor Charlie’s head in Hereditary but that notion went right out the window (or over a cliff, as the case may be) during the Attustupa scene. The sickening thud that resounds when the old woman falls will stick with me for a while. Both of Aster’s films frame violence and death almost scientifically and without comment. The scene in which the old man is dispatched with a hammer is viewed from far away, like you would a nature documentary. It’s similar to the image of ants crawling all over Charlie’s head in Hereditary. It’s not the horror of the event itself, it’s the indifference to the universe around the event that is horrifying. As I said, it takes a special kind of emotional masochism to get through the film in one piece. Thankfully I found myself among many friends at the Lyric.

In my opinion, what separates Aster from the Green Inferno’s of the world and really elevates his films is the raw, beating human heart that lies at the center of his stories. Just like Hereditary, Midsommar is a human drama. This salvages it from being just another nihilistic death-romp so common in horror films. The closest comparison I can make to another modern film is Pan’s Labyrinth in the way it combines gritty human tragedy, psychedelic bending of reality, and putting its viewer through the goddamn emotional ringer before it’s over. Midsommar is a movie about trauma, mourning, nature, bad breakups, and the tragedy of not being able to communicate. There’s also a whole cult thing going on too, but you already knew that from all the commercials. Although it might superficially seem like another slow descent into hell like Hereditary turned out to be (literally), Midsommar’s biggest strength is the empathetic journey we take with Florence Pugh’s Dani as she overcomes her trauma in a way that Hallmark movies would never have the balls to show.

DAY THREE – THEY BURNED UP IN A FIRE

Midsommar and Hereditary share a few common threads: A mourning female protagonist, cults, screeching violins, etc. The biggest difference between the two films, surprisingly enough, is Midsommar’s devotion to realism. In Hereditary we saw demonic possessions, headless floating Toni Collette, and poor Gabriel Byrne getting lit on fire (again) with evil black magic. In Midsommar there are no demons and there’s no discernible magic, with the exception of the eerie perpetual daylight. There’s a lot of psychedelic drugs and goofy rituals to be found amongst the Hårga but hardly anything resembling supernatural evil. They’re not after money or trying to steal anyone’s souls. Old people are thrown off cliffs and innocent tourists are murdered so that crops will grow and babies will be born. It’s not exactly the most nefarious scheme ever hatched on-screen. As a geo-political threat, the Hårga are somewhere between the Children of the Corn and the cult from The Wicker Man.

So what makes them so terrifying? The alien aspects of the Hårga have a sociological root. Their entire way of life and philosophy seem almost diametrically opposed to American, or otherwise western ideas. While we worship and pursue the preservation of the self and live in fear of death, the Hårga enthusiastically embrace death and sacrifice for the sake of the community. In a scene from the director’s cut, we see a scene that explicitly communicates this idea. Dani and Christian watch a kind of passion play take place by the river in which a child volunteers to be drowned in the river only to be “saved” at the last moment by his bravery in facing death. They’re so utterly devoted to this idea that you almost have a begrudging understanding for it by the end. That is, of course, until we see even their truest believer screaming in horror at his fate as he burns to death in the Yellow Building of Death. It’s like a bucket of ice water that wakes the audience from its dark dream and reminds us of the very real human pain that this cult is inflicting. We see other hints of it in the Attestupa scene in which (and maybe I’m reading too much into this) you can see the fear and unease creeping into the old man’s demeanor more and more leading up to the jump. It could explain why he tried to take a less-lethal plunge than his counterpart. There’s a whole host of questions running underneath Midsommar  regarding the Hårga about ethics, nature, and society that can make for rewarding rewatches if you have the stomach for it. It poses these questions like a philosophy professor, more concerned with the hypothetical of the situation than on passing judgement. It’s a far cry from summoning an ancient hell-demon to inhabit the body of your dead son.

Rather than devils, the horrors of Midsommar are human. From the creeping menace of the Hårga to Dani’s PTSD-influenced flashbacks and hallucinations, it all stems from an organic source. The trauma of the opening sequence disarms the audience in the same way that it disarms Dani for the events that follow. From the moment we realize why Dani is leaving that voicemail for her family in the beginning, you are locked into a constant cycle of dread that doesn’t end until everything is engulfed in flames. We are not dreading a demonic apparition or someone’s head to twist around. We spend the film in fear of a trigger word, images that haunt our sleep, or a social faux pax that could spell death. These are the kinds of feelings that people with anxiety and trauma experience on a regular basis and it’s a feeling that the film is able to simulate with terrifying accuracy. That could be a reason why the film has struck such a chord with young, modern audiences. Of course, all of this would be for naught if the film didn’t have a character that can carry that emotional load.

DAY FOUR – CROWNING THE MAY QUEEN

I’m starting to think that the audition process to be a lead in an Ari Aster film is to see how many ways you can display mind-dissolving grief in a five minute stretch. You’d be hard pressed to find a more sympathetic character than poor Dani. Her family is wiped out in a murder-suicide, her boyfriend is an unemotional goon, and everywhere she turns there’s psychedelic drugs and murder cult hippies. Not a great situation. Luckily for Dani, she has a formidable actress like Florence Pugh to portray her in all of her mourning, triumphant glory. Pugh saw the tour de force performance that Toni Collette put forth in Hereditary and more than rose to the tradition. She is the emotional heart of the movie and the life raft that the audience must cling to for survival. Watching her attempt to confront Christian over his spontaneous Swedish excursion before wilting at his emotional manipulations is crushing. The scene where she cries with her greek chorus of Hårga women is just as raw and heartbreaking as Toni Collette’s anguished screams upon finding Charlie’s body in the car. She spends such a long time in the movie beaten down that when she finally works up the courage to call Christian out for his shittiness (“I could see you doing something like that”), it truly feels like a pivotal moment. By the time we get to the end of the film, we can’t help but celebrate for Dani as she fixes Christian with that withered look of loathing that he’s deserved the entire time.

One of the absolute best scenes in the entire movie is the Maypole scene. Pugh is able to take a break from her grief and confusion long enough to lose herself in the Maypole dance. During those intense closeups, we see a very real and genuine look of joy appear on Pugh’s face as she progresses further and further into the game. You can see the grief and sadness leave her body as she surrenders herself to the spell of the dance. Despite all the cult machinations and elderly cliff diving that came before, it’s a tremendously powerful moment to see her finally reclaim joy again after being devastated the entire film. It’s a triumph for Aster as a writer and for Pugh as an actress.

Dani’s journey throughout Midsommar serves as a parallel mirror to Annie’s descent into madness in Hereditary. Whereas Annie’s grief causes her to lose her grip on reality and succumb to her mother’s darkness, Dani’s grief sends her on a journey of transformation. Although both journeys do end with them setting their significant others on fire (I’m noticing a theme, Ari), Dani certainly comes out the better at the end of Midsommar. Whether she finds herself newly empowered or just a drone of the Hårga is up to interpretation, but that’s what’s so sweet about this movie. It can be whatever you make of it.

DAY FIVE – EVERYBODY HATES CHRISTIAN

Before we ever meet the Hårga or their kooky murder village, we’re rooting for Dani. We’re rooting for her to work past her grief and break up with Christian, the world’s worst movie boyfriend. Christian is the perfect antagonist for 2019: a clueless, arrogant, emotionally-stunted white man. In a movie filled with ritual sacrifices, sex magic, and drug-induced hallucinations, one of the most unbelievable things about it was the fact that Dani had somehow dated this absolute cock-hammer for over four years prior to their doomed odyssey. The director’s cut did what I thought was impossible and made Christian even more unlikeable. It’s actually kind of remarkable when you think about it objectively. Christian never physically hurts or threatens anyone. His lowest moment of depravity is stealing Josh’s thesis subject. It literally takes an entire village and powerful drugs to convince him to cheat on Dani. Despite all this, we’re still completely on board with Dani’s decision to send him to his fiery demise. Why? Because he absolutely sucks.

Just like the bear carcass that he is stuffed inside like a chicken cordon bleu, Christian symbolizes every bad partner that we have ever had (or have been). To Christian, Dani’s tragedy is an inconvenience and an emotional chore, even before her family is killed. When we see him on the couch at the beginning of the film, clutching Dani as she’s racked with grief, the expression on his face clearly screams “why does this have to happen to me?” Christian’s worst traits are his duplicity and lack of conviction. This is on prime display during an extended version of the post-party scene when Dani first hears about the Swedish trip. When called out for the obvious chickenshit move of disappearing to Sweden while his girlfriend was in mourning, he knee-jerk invites Dani onto the trip and tries to pass it off as a surprise, a move he echoes later in the movie when he forgets Dani’s birthday. Jack Reynor is probably a pretty cool dude in the real world but he captures the faux-earnestness and emotional bankruptcy of Christian with natural aplomb. The sheer awkward tension that exists whenever Christian and Dani begin fighting is almost as cringe-inducing as the visceral death scenes throughout the film. Almost.

One of my few criticisms of Midsommar is that there are times when Christian displays almost sociopathic levels of douchebaggedness that veer too far into trope territory. In an entirely new scene from the director’s cut, Dani confronts Christian again after another disturbing presentation from the Hårga. In the scene, Dani suggests to Christian that maybe they should try and get away from the cult that throws old people off cliffs and simulates drowning children. Christian sanctimoniously accuses Dani of being judgmental of the cult and then accuses her of being emotionally manipulative by giving him flowers earlier in the day. It’s an over the top display of pigheadedness and is the only scene in the film that felt overly beholden to horror movie tropes, with Christian benignly brushing off the cult’s clear malicious overtures like a jock dismissing a strange noise in a Friday the 13th movie. If anything, it makes it a little too easy for the audience to celebrate the objectively horrible way in which he is killed.

DAY SIX – SO WE JUST GONNA IGNORE THE BEAR?

Here’s something I wasn’t expecting – this movie has funny moments! In a modern horror environment where everything is Scary and Serious All The Time (The Witch could have benefited from some light slapstick), it was rather refreshing. Admittedly, I wasn’t as keen to the humor the first time around. Awkward chuckles at all the naked Satanists notwithstanding, Hereditary wasn’t notable for its gags. It wasn’t until the insane blood sugar sex magic scene between Christian and Maya before I finally tuned into the fact that it was absurd on purpose. Midsommar uses humor as a massaging hand to help us digest the violent deaths and disturbing imagery throughout it. The humor is subtle and you can only really feel when you’re watching in a large theater setting; feeling the collective anxiety of everyone around you. The scene after Dani is crowned the May Queen while Christian sits in a paranoid, drugged-out stupor is my favorite example. For just a moment, we are able to forget about all the bludgeoned meat faces and dead parents and laugh at the absurdity of the whole situation. This is also the only other piece of fiction I’ve seen outside South Park in which a character consumes another character’s pubes. If Ari never made another horror film and only did comedy after this, I wouldn’t object. Mainly because my psyche can’t handle much more of this.

DAY SEVEN – THE FOUR NEWBLOODS

In a more fortunate universe, our four doomed graduate students could have been the stars of a buddy-comedy like The Hangover.  Instead, they get killed, stuffed, and burned up. So it goes. We get to spend more time with Christian’s merry band of bros in the director’s cut, including a new montage scene featuring the boys and Dani driving up from the airport to the cult’s secluded location. We discover Mark has a morbid fascination with disturbing deaths (because of course he does) and we see the seeds planted for Josh and Christian’s academic conflict later in the film. William Jackson Harper, as has been noted elsewhere, essentially plays a more ethically grey version of his Good Place character in Josh. He’s the most sympathetic of the three American sacrificial lambs, but his attitude toward the cult is still aloof and clinical. When Pelle tells the group about Attestupa, Josh reveals that he knows what it is. When pressed to explain, he simply smirks and remains silent like a guy who knows the surprise twist of a movie before all his friends watch for the first time. It’s a reminder that compassion was not a trait that Pelle was concerned about when picking his future victims friends.

Will Poulter’s Mark has three jobs in this movie: ripping vapes, talking shit, and making Christian look like a decent person. Just like Christian, I feel like there are points in the script in which Mark becomes too much of a cartoon douchebag (OF ALL THE THINGS TO PEE ON YOU PEE ON THE SACRED TREE?) but he’s so goddamn hilarious that I can look the other way on it. There’s a great moment in the director’s cut where he wonders aloud whether he could put his finger in a Hårga elder’s butt that’s worth the price of admission alone.

The question of intention with Pelle is also an interesting thing in the film. Pelle, as an extension of the cult, is seen as a foil to his ugly American friends. His compassion, devotion to his community, and affection for Dani make us like him, despite the increasingly clear conclusion that his entire friendship with the group is just a pretense to lure them to their deaths. He functions very much as a surrogate for our feelings about the Hårga. There’s an interesting exchange that takes place during the aforementioned driving sequence in which one of the characters jokingly accuses Pelle of brainwashing Josh, to which Pelle replies “Josh was already brainwashed when I met him.” It’s a revealing moment for Pelle that shows how he actually feels about his so-called friends. To Pelle, Christian and his friends are just poor, ignorant sheep being led to the slaughter, unfortunate but necessary victims for his real family.

I’ve read a few conspiracy fan theories that suggest Pelle and the cult had a hand in orchestrating the death of Dani’s family but there’s barely any evidence in the film or director’s cut to suggest that is the case. If confirmed to be true, it would have to be the most overelaborate plan to steal another guy’s girl in film history. Pelle makes no secret about the fact that he considers himself a far superior partner for Dani than Christian, but it strikes me more as opportunism than a carefully-thought out plan. If you know that Christian’s gonna get burnt up in a bear suit, you might as well shoot your shot.

Simon and Connie do excellent jobs as morally outraged cannon fodder. Simon’s fate in particular is one of the more haunting visuals in the movie, especially if you subscribe to the theory that he is still alive when Christian finds him splayed out like a dissected frog. The unnecessary brutality hints at a racial element to the cult that is never explicitly mentioned. It’s hard to see a European community filled with people with blonde hair and blue eyes and not think about it. This theory is doubly reinforced when you realize that Christian, who is used for breeding, and Dani, who is assimilated into the cult, are kept around the longest because they most closely resemble the other members.

DAY EIGHT – UNCLOUDED BY NORMAL COGNITION

Another thing about Midsommar that sets it apart is its bright, Sound of Music-esque color palette. As a general rule, most modern horror films are filmed in dark, subdued tones to confuse and ruin the viewer’s eyesight. Most of the film takes place in broad daylight, which helps us appreciate all the gorgeous costume, design work, and choreography that went into the film. It was clearly a labor of love from a great many hands. The detail work done in the lodging building alone is ridiculous. Bizarre murals and runes pepper the architecture and only further drive home the community’s other-worldly qualities. The banquet scenes are a special kind of beauty as we watch the motion of activity move from one part of the table to another. Without context, I would have thought it was a deleted scene from Samsara. All of this combined with the gorgeous natural landscape of the community make Midsommar as beautiful as it is disgusting. Both aesthetics combine at the very end as we see all the disfigured corpses dressed up like morbid holiday decorations for the final ceremony. It’s probably a good thing that the Hårga don’t celebrate Halloween. Or maybe they do and that’s the idea for a sequel. Who knows?

I would also be remiss to not talk about the psychedelic sequences in Midsommar, which were some of the most realistic depictions I’ve ever seen on film. The breathing of the leaves, random distortions, awkward conversations, and looming threats of a bad trip were nearly pitch perfect. I have no doubt that Mr. Aster was able to do plenty of research on that subject when he was a student at the College of Santa Fe. There are a couple interesting parallels between Santa Fe and the Hårga community that I enjoyed. Just like the Hårga, Santa Fe has an annual festival in which it burns a massive effigy that represents all of its negative energy. It’s also an insular community that possesses a not-insignificant number of weird white people in robes. Maybe I’m reading too much into everything again but I have a pretty solid hunch Ari found a few threads of inspiration for the Hårga floating through Santa Fe.

Why?

DAY NINE – THE MIDNIGHT SUN

Midsommar is not a perfect movie. o my knowledge, the only truly perfect movie is Kung-Pow: Enter the Fist. Midsommar is able to avoid most of the pitfalls that handicap most horror films, but is not immune to criticism. It’s a long and punishing film and if you’re not invested in Dani’s story then it can certainly feel like a chore to get through. There’s no one else to really root for and if you’re not into the fiery revenge fantasy at the end then this movie might not be your cup of psychedelic tea.

I also felt like the character of Ruben (and his stupid cotton cloud chair) was a little half-baked as well. Maybe it was the director’s intention to leave some elements of the Hårga’s mythology open-ended but it really seemed like he only functioned as a convenient creepy set-piece for Josh’s death scene. He felt like another iteration of the Creepy Kid character that was used much more effectively in Hereditary. Ari has a lot of good tricks up his sleeve, but he’s at risk of turning into self parody if he goes to that well too many times.

It’s also triggering as hell. I have a close friend that could not get through it and had to leave the theater. Like I said, it’s not for everyone. Certainly would never recommend this to anyone who has lost a loved one recently. But if you’re recommending Ari Aster movies to a grieving friend, I think you already know you’re an asshole.

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