Ari Aster’s Hereditary was the breakout horror film of 2018, bolstered by the stellar performance of Toni Collette as Annie, a grief-stricken parent dealing with the unraveling of her family as tragedy after tragedy unfolds. With Hereditary, Aster flirted with some elements of folk horror, namely occultism and the use of landscape. Midsommar, however, showcases the folk horror influences far more directly, namely the original Wicker Man and the extensive research on midsummer traditions that Aster did. In some ways, Aster’s second film is more ambitious and unrestrained, especially in its cinematography. For months, the film has been hyped, to the point that director/writer Jordan Peele called it “atrociously disturbing” and a “masterpiece” in a conversation with Aster for Fangoria magazine. So, the question is, does Midsommar live up to the hype? The short answer is yes and no. At 2.5 hours long, Midsommar is a lot to unpack. It is a film that warrants repeat viewings for those who have the patience, and, like Hereditary, it is a film rooted in female trauma.
Aster has described Midsommar as a break-up movie that unravels into a folk horror nightmare. When trying to assess the film, that’s a good starting point. We’re essentially aligned with psychology grad student Dani (Florence Pugh) from the get-go, as she frantically emails her bi-polar sister and begs her to respond, fearing the worst. Early on, we’re also introduced to her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), whose friends encourage him to break up with Dani and accuse her of “abusing” him by demanding so much of his time. Not long after, Dani is orphaned in a visually jarring and disturbing scene that is one of many throughout the film. This narrative serves as the core plot line. Essentially, this is Dani’s story, and though there are other narrative threads and many pagans in white robes, the protagonist’s trauma is the real anchor. We’re with her each and every time she’s about to have a panic attack, be it in a cramped restroom on a plane or when she and Christian’s friends take mushrooms shortly after they arrive at a Swedish commune for midsummer celebrations.
In commenting on the relationship between Dani and Christian, Aster told The Hollywood Reporter that he aimed to “present a dynamic in which neither party is awful to the other one, but they’re absolutely wrong for each other. By virtue of the fact that we’re aligned very clearly with one character in the film, the other is immediately reduced to an antagonist.” It is true that Christian never specifically does anything horrible to Dani. He is callous and often distant, but he can’t really be accused of ill-intent. They are simply wrong for each and floundering in a stagnant relationship.
Dani (Florence Pugh)
It’s unclear why Dani stays with Christian, but after losing her family, he’s all that she has left. The pagans sense this, specifically fellow student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who leads the graduate students to the rural Swedish town where the nightmare unfolds. Pelle sees the pagans as a real family. He tells Dani that no one takes anything for themselves and they share everything. In this context, he specifically is talking about Dani, especially since he’s sitting with her on a bed while his hand moves to her thigh. He tries to disrupt the monogamous relationship that she has with Christian and offers an alternative lifestyle.
In that sense, the film presents two very different lifestyles that are destined to clash. There is the lifestyle of Pelle’s ancestral cult the Hårga and the lifestyle of the Americans. One of the white-robed Hårga tells the grad students that what matters most is being in harmony with nature. The Hårga also do everything together, from raising babies to eating. In fact, some of the eeriest scenes involve everyone seated at long wooden tables, staring at each other, waiting and watching for one of the elders to unfold their napkin before everyone else does the same in harmony. The penetrating gazes of the Hårga are unnerving.
On the other hand, there is the lifestyle of the Americans, best exemplified by Mark (Will Poulter), who serves as comic relief but also exemplifies the worst aspects of western culture. He is rude and dismissive of the Hårga’s ancient traditions. At one point, he relieves himself on a massive tree viewed by the Hårga as physical manifestation of their deceased ancestors. Additionally, the other friends, even Josh (William Harper Jackson), a grad student writing a thesis on midsummer traditions and history, are constantly pulling out their phones to snap photos. Eventually, Christian, whose graduate work is rudderless, decides he too is going to write on the Hårga. However, he does this for his own benefit and doesn’t have the deep respect for the traditions that Josh has. That said, even Josh can’t put his phone away and takes photos of sacred books, despite being told no by the elders. This conflict between modernity/western sensibilities and ancient ritual is one of the undercurrents of the film and folk horror in general.
Midsommar also contains interesting commentary on suicide and death. In one of the most gut-punching scenes, the friends witness the suicides of two elders, but the Hårga explain that it’s better to give back to the life cycle and not allow both the spirit and body to break down in old age. To the westerners, however, this concept is unfathomable. Suicide is always bad.
Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski deserves major props for bringing Aster’s nightmare vision to life. Simply put, the visual are stunning, be it the sprawling mountainside or the blinding brightness of the constant daylight. At times, the film is disorienting to the viewer, especially in the way that it bends time, specifically when the friends are tripping and images blur together. Grass grows on Dani’s feet and hands, for instance. The film is worth seeing for the visuals alone, especially on the big screen.
It’s too soon yet to declare Midsommar a masterpiece of the genre, as Peele has already done. There needs to be some time and distance before any work of art can and should be given such a title. Aster’s sophomore release is wildly ambitious, and at times, as existential as Hereditary, while including a nice dash of dark humor. At its core, though, it’s a film about two people who simply shouldn’t be together. This, coupled with Dani’s trauma and her desire to find a family, are what really drive the film. The visuals are a memorizing and fairy tale-like addition to the narrative.
Some resources on folk horror:
Mark Gatis’ History of Horror
Hereditary as Folk Horror by Alexandra Hauke, published by Horror Homeroom