Midsommar is ambitious, well-acted, meticulously crafted, and thematically strong, but it’s fails at being what it’s supposed to be: a scary movie.
So, if this is how they celebrate summer in Sweden, what do they have for winter? Mushroom pudding and one-night sex with Santa cosplayers?
Directed by Ari Aster, Midsommar is about Dani Arbor (Florence Pugh), a troubled college student with a family tragedy and a shaky relationship with her boyfriend Christian Hughes (Jack Reynor). They decide that a summer trip to Swedish village might help clear things up, but what waits for them is a nightmare of white dresses, bear suits, and mating rituals.
Midsommar was a film I mainly watched due to the director’s name value. Ari Aster’s first film, Hereditary, was a masterful suspense horror that, while not without its flaws, still established remarkable competency in building up tension. However, the daytime setting was also what drew me in. As modern horror films make individual objects onscreen as easy to see as an octopus swimming in its ink that’s submerged in a jar of tar at midnight, I was curious as to how exactly Aster would make me scared to sleep with my lights on as well as off.
And after seeing it, I can certain say that Midsommar is a well-crafted movie. The set design lays out brightly painted buildings with decorations over a large landscape, giving it an almost stage-like feeling. That, coupled with the unnaturally bright, dreamy filter, make what would normally be a peaceful scenery feel alien and deceptive, like you’re in a cult version of The Truman Show. It gives a sense of unease throughout the entire film.
There’s another factor to that unrest, and that is the character drama involved. Midsommar isn’t interested in having the cultists go BOO as much as it is in showing a couple’s tragedy, the slow but sure breakup between these not-so-lovers. Every scene they are together, there’s always some element – such as failing to light the candle on a birthday cupcake during the celebration song – that indicate instability. That also adds to the already highly unsettling atmosphere, as now you have to worry about when their relationship will explode on top of the fact that there’s hair in Christian’s pie and it’s not from someone’s head.
But then comes the main issue. Midsommar, on a purely technical and thematic standpoint, is well made. However, it fails at being an actually good horror movie. Horror depends on scarcity, whether that be scarcity of visibility or scarcity of information. After all, we cannot help but fear the unknown. Ari Aster already gave up on the visibility aspect, since he lights up every corner of the screen like everyone on set was nyctophobic. In that case, he should have focused on giving us unexpected developments in the actual plot. Yet Midsommar’s plot is laid completely visible just like the setting.
Let’s face it: everything about the story’s setup screams CULT right from the start. If you walk into some weird ritual in a horror movie, you are probably not going to walk away peacefully with only some weird selfies for Instagram. Perhaps you may argue that “some characters die” in a horror movie cannot count as a spoiler, but then it’s the movie’s job to make the journey through those deaths surprising. But the actual rituals are pedestrian, as they mostly amount to chants, dances, and sacrifices.
In addition, the rituals just come off as random and disjointed than anything else. I mean, I have no knowledge on Swedish cult rituals and I am definitely not going to find out myself, and I get that it’s to portray just how alien the visitors are feeling here, but even so, don’t all rituals have a central theme to it? And yet I didn’t really get a sense of that, as there’s far too many parts unexplained for it to really feel complete.
The movie tries to salvage the ritual parts by throwing in some grotesque imagery and body horror. However, this attempt backfires because it is so explicit. In fact, some of them actively take me out of the experience for their sheer ludicrousness. For instance, there’s a pretty long sex scene in the climax that made me wonder if I had accidentally switched over to porn when I first watched the film. Granted, body horror isn’t exactly my thing, but back when the movie came out, I remember audiences in my theater were laughing rather than staring in horror. So I don’t think I am alone in my sentiment.
Even if Dani and Christian’s breakup is a central conflict, the story still involves a cult ritual, and it should tie in naturally to the inner plot as well. In some parts it does, but as the film goes on the scenes that don’t just pile on top of each other until I’m just left feeling empty with the taste of pubic hair tea in my mouth.
Midsommar is a definite step down from Hereditary. Ari Aster tries to make a horror movie without fear of the dark or fear of the unknown, and it goes about as well as trying to make a gaming PC without the GPU or the CPU. Perhaps he became too wrapped up in breaking horror conventions or appearing bold, but the end result just comes off more as reckless.
Again, I hesitate to call Midsommar a terrible film. It’s well shot, edited, scored, and acted, and I am adding half a star just on that account. But good packaging can only take a movie so far when it’s failing to make me scared or intrigued, only disgusted. Perhaps I am just not “getting it,” whatever “it” is supposed to be. Still, as I always say, if a movie doesn’t give me any incentive after the initial watch to go back and find “it,” then it’s about as successful as Dani and Christian’s relationship.
Midsommar is now available to watch on digital and on demand.