In Eli Roth’s film Hostel, a group of American teens are sold into the world of professional murder-torture while trying to have a fun adventure in Europe. A twist near the end (I’m fair certain you don’t care about spoilers from 2005) is that only one of the fratty American bros speaks another language. He uses this skill that his friends did not possess to nearly talk his way out of impending doom. Americans aren’t typically known for their ability to adapt and find understanding with other cultures. So this bit of the film always struck me as clever.
Midsommar is kind of like Hostel, but the foreign language is personal tragedy. And all of the Americans can speak it. And you kinda think that might help them make it out alive.
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Midsommar is the new picture from rising scare-master Ari Aster. His 2018 film Hereditary got under audiences’ skin in a way that felt fresh and unexpected, despite being structured around a fairly straightforward ghost story. In Midsommar, Aster attempts to do the same type of “genre plus twists” with a different well-worn trope. The result is a hybrid that makes the audience uncomfortable by never settling on what it actually is. And I can’t tell how much of that is on purpose.
[This Midsommar review is mostly spoiler-free from this point forward but, you know, it’s a review. So…]
Dani and Christian are a young couple whose relationship falls apart when Dani’s family suffers a terrible tragedy. Christian and his friends are committed to still attending a remote Swedish summer festival, and half-jokingly ask if Dani wants to join them. She does! Though she bring a carry-on bag and a lot of emotional baggage that threatens to harsh the vibe for this group of bros who mostly want to do drugs and meet Swedish girls.
Let the Discussion Begin
The remote location of the festival places the friends amidst a seemingly pleasant, but almost immediately recognizable cult. A single violent act very quickly alerts the Americans that they’ve made a terrible mistake… But it’s far too late to get out now. The best way forward is through, so the friends attempt to adapt to this new culture long enough that they might survive. Whether the cost of living will be worth it or not is hard to say.
Newfangled horror films (e.g. It Follows, The Babadook) tend to come prepackaged with discussion about whether or not they technically count as “horror” films. Hereditary had to fight some battles on that front, too. And I can already see where Midsommar will fall into similar online discourse. Midsommar is certainly not a traditional genre film. That makes sense considering the bones it’s built upon.
It’s a good time to mention that this movie is much more than a direct homage to The Wicker Man. Whereas that story was mostly a pervasive flow of odd mystery, Midsommar is a near constant blanket of dread that covers its two-and-a-half-hour runtime. There’s not a single jump scare in the film. In fact, much of it takes place in direct sunlight. There’s nothing waiting in the shadows. The terror of Midsommar is about what you can see coming from a mile away. You just keep mumbling “no, no, no” under your breath. But Midsommar can’t hear what you want. Even if it did, this film does not take requests.
A Perfect Second Stab
Aster, along with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, have created a visual story so dazzling that you owe it to yourself to see it in a theater. Each scene is handled with such brazen mastery of the form that it makes me want to go back to film school and have it explained to me at length. Similarly, that’s about all that I need to/should say about the story. So much of Midsommar is about the inability to explain situations — especially in the moment. It feels tailor-made for wild theories about its “meaning.” And, yes, if you’re an Extremely Online person, there is gonna be some discourse around this one. But the film still has a story to tell and accomplishes that, too. While large swaths of it are hallucinogenic visual metaphors, you’ll still leave the theater understanding the story and its ending. This isn’t art for art’s sake. Well. Okay… It may be that, too, but it isn’t up its own ass about it.
This is all carried on the back of an incredible young cast. But the leads are just as important as the extras. There are dozens of people in the religious sect. While very few of them have names or even lines, so many are extremely memorable. The very specific kind of perverse oddity each actor brings to the screen manages to elicit laughter —followed by a secondary wave of panic. The beating heart of the film is the performances. And that’s probably the biggest draw for me to see Midsommar again as soon as possible.
Midsommar is an anxiety attack about anxiety attacks. It is violent and often cruel to the audience. There is almost nothing it brings to the table narratively that will surprise you, because it’s been done plenty of times elsewhere. It’s also one of the most densely packed cinematic experiences I can remember from the last few years. The messages about what we do with loss and what it means to be alive haunt me more than any of Hereditary’s spooky ghosts. It’s an achievement of a film, and for this to be any writer/director’s sophomore effort is downright unfair.