Getting dumped sucks. Sometimes you feel it coming on like a slow moving train, unable to stop it, and when it hits you, you experience a long, drawn out kick to the gut. The world feels incomprehensible, nothing makes sense, and you feel like it never will again. You can’t avoid the pain, and you may not even want to anyhow. It’s like watching a horror movie where you don’t want the protagonist to go in that basement, but you have a stronger urge to see what’s down there. Ari Aster, who made his startling debut last year with Hereditary, understands that the best horror plays with real human fears, be it disease, abandonment, or loss of control. Reportedly based on a painful breakup of his own, his Midsommar uses folk horror as the spine on which to lay down his thoughts on a dying relationship, and it’s a delicious, morbidly funny, gore-filled, visually stunning, gorgeously designed, perfectly indulgent 2 hours and 20 minutes of sun-dappled, rainbow colored dread.
Dani (the captivating Florence Pugh) experiences a tragic loss at the outset of the film, and her paralyzing grief wears down her emotionally incapable boyfriend Christian (Jack Raynor, whose schlubby stoner look from Sing Street has morphed into an almost Chris Pratt level of matinee idol looks). Encouraged to cut ties with his needy girlfriend by his fellow grad students, Christian and his friends plan a summer getaway to Sweden to attend a once in a lifetime cultural festival. His friends include Mark, a quip machine played to deadpan perfection by Will Poulter (Detroit), Josh (William Jackson Harper of The Good Place), an anthropological scholar intent on writing his thesis about European folk culture, and the gentle, soft spoken Pele (Vilhelm Blomgren), who invites everyone to his village commune for their once-every-ninety-years activities. Unable to cut ties with Dani because of her trauma, he half-heartedly invites her along, and to his surprise, she says yes.
This first act perfectly captures a pair in their death throes, where questions seem like accusations, and pauses reveal underlying truths. Aster borrows heavily from Roman Polanski, as he did with his debut film, by allowing negative and offscreen space and holding onto shots longer than normal, to create elastic tensions. It’s so refreshing to watch a filmmaker, who creates strong, classic frames with his cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, take his time, avoiding the rushed cutting style of his contemporaries. He also really thinks through his transitions, creating an unforgettable one where Dani, in an overhead shot, rushes into an apartment bathroom, only to reveal that she’s now on an airplane headed for Scandinavia. I also savored the delightfully disorienting upside-down shots of the road as the group drives toward their destiny.
Now most filmmakers, at this point would want to get to the gore and bloodletting, but Aster wants us to live with that sinking feeling for as along as possible. So before our doomed Americans arrive at the proper camp, they stop just outside of it for an extended interlude where they imbibe hallucinogenic mushrooms. This allows Dani, a bundle of uptight, frayed nerves to perhaps chill out, but it has the opposite effect. She has scars, and Pugh takes us on a master class of expressions. Is she crazy or is she simply with a guy incapable of giving her what she needs? Ahh, relationships can suck, even in a seemingly perfect environment where the sun barely sets and the villagers offer up the perfect embodiment of an ABBA tune. Most horror films take place in the dark and freak us out with their jump scares. This film operates in bright sunlight and terrifies with very few shock tactics. Sometimes a misunderstanding can haunt your dreams more than someone shouting, “Boo!” Here we get a Swedish death cult that looks like a lot of ridiculous fun.
Obviously this experience has far more to offer than maypole dances and giant feasts. Henrik Svensson, making his feature debut as a Production Designer, has created the weirdest, most ominous storybook environment with an endless array of folk paintings lining the walls of his interiors. They look cute until you take a harder look at the terrifying and carnal tales they depict. Same goes for everything going on in the background of most shots. The pleasant folk dress in white, classically Swedish garb, almost sprinkling fairy dust wherever they go, but look off in the distance and you’ll spy couples doing inexplicable things. The genius of these scenes is that these people, called the Hårga, always appear to be kind and caring. From their point of view, they never do anything wrong. Bobby Krlic, who goes by the name The Haxan Clock, adds immeasurably to the tone of this film with his rich, evocative score.
Aster mines most of this folk horror from the fact that we have a clash of cultures who don’t understand each other and often nod their heads to pretend that they do. When something unexpected, something insanely disturbing and gory, happens, it had me questioning our American norms versus those in other parts of the world.
At this point, many may feel the film stretches credibility, that our protagonists would get the hell out of this place right away. But due to Pele’s sweet persuasiveness and maybe in small part to those drugs they keep imbibing in every cup of that mysterious tea, they stay. Besides, we get an audience surrogate of sorts with an English couple who go crazy when the pagan rituals start to have a body count. While many characters meet their doom, we’re on Dani’s journey, who travels from grief towards her own method of coping. Aster may have a great time staging the bizarre rites of this cult, but he’s more interested in finding a catharsis for his heroine. Where he ends up, in that perfect final second, proved thrilling and strangely real. The violence, the crazy shots of throbbing, undulating meats, the Hannibal level of murder dioramas, however, will also stick in your head.
While this film pings on the may themes found in Rosemary’s Baby, such as not really knowing your partner, suspecting an evil undercurrent lies beneath the people around you, and, yes, even drinking strange liquids, Aster reverses the roles at times and has a more avenging spirit. This film would make a great triple bill with that film along with the recent remake of Suspiria. The latter really felt similar when things go absolutely bonkers in the third act. With copious amounts of nudity, sex, and bloodshed, both films use giggle-inducing absurdity to create its own form of horror. You won’t soon forget what one character does to another’s butt, and I’ll just leave it at that.
Many will lose their patience with this film, or find it more silly than scary. I, however, loved every drawn-out minute of it. It challenges how we view death. It allows for the possibility that it’s sometimes Okay to be alone. It makes you wonder if our own customs make any sense, and it may make you think twice about judging the basket case who seems to suck all the energy out of a relationship. In the end, that person may be the only sane person in the room. And isn’t that terrifying?
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Midsommar gets a 2 out of 50. You would think a film all about free love would have some same sex action, even off in the distance, but the closest we get are men touching each other’s faces or a gaggle of naked women overseeing a sex ritual. Come on Sweden! You’re not usually this uptight!
By Glenn Gaylord
Misommar is in cinemas everywhere now.