On a scale of 1 to What in Sam Hill, with 10 being Mother! and 1 being Far From Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog, Midsommar probably ranks at about a 9. I wish I could say I recommend it, but I can’t.
My expectations were super high because it came from the same Writer/ Director as Hereditary, possibly the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, but also one I have enormous respect for for its writing, acting, and thematic content—I didn’t even care that the plot actually isn’t that interesting.
The first thing I heard about this movie was that it occurs almost entirely in daylight (this isn’t exactly true—only the Sweden parts are) which was certainly intriguing. The movie has the same slow pace as Hereditary and The Witch—it takes its time to unfurl, focusing a lot of attention on atmosphere. In the first twenty minutes, I definitely felt like I was heading toward something like Hereditary—I felt like something equally horrifying was around the corner and was cringing in preparation for it. The film opens with Dani (Florence Pugh) dealing with her douchcanoe boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor, who eerily looks like a young Chris Pratt). I liked that the movie was willing to spend the time to show their relationship dynamic: he’s already checked out of the relationship but is the sort that stays in it because he’s too cowardly to break up. Dani is in exactly the sort of relationship you are in during your twenties: trying to cajole emotional support about of someone with low emotional intelligence who is fundamentally selfish but unwilling to admit it. She tries to get comfort about a disturbing email she received from her sister who has a history of bipolar. Just as Douchcanoe is talking to his friends about how he has to break up with her, he gets a phone call from Dani.
I thought this was handled well— filmed in a way that was disturbing, tense, and well choreographed—Dani’s sister has killed both their parents and herself with carbon monoxide from their car. Although this is not the most violent way to die, its filmed in a way that is visually disturbing. You get the sense that you are seeing it from Dani’s imagined perspective. This makes the phone call to Christian appropriately disturbing: Dani is just screaming. Cut to him trying to comfort her as she is just primally screaming—this reminded me of the epic mourning wails of Toni Collette in Hereditary (for which she should have won an award). So … awkward.. not the best time to break up after all.
Rather than displaying any sense of emotional honesty, Christian lets Dani tag along on his bro-trip to Sweden, led by his so-nice-he-must-be-creepy Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Pelle is the only one who is actually nice to her, which immediately makes you think he is three steps away from putting them in an industrial-sized Vitamix. They are accompanied by Christian’s anthropologist grad school friend/ rival Josh (William Jackson Harper) (who, other than the floral arrangements, provides the movie’s only color), and Mark (William Poulter), the comic relief.
At this point, the movie moves away from a lot of the super atmospherey stuff that made Hereditary and The Witch so great and turns into the standard cult movie I’ve seen dozens of iterations of. You get to the isolated cult location. Everyone’s super nice. Something mildly disturbing happens, but because it’s a horror movie nobody Nopes the fuck out of there. Then people start to disappear one by one, and then it all comes to a head. I was kind of hoping for more than this, and ultimately the film doesn’t deliver more than this. It definitely makes its time to move through the trope though. We get to see a lot about how the commune that Pelle grew up in functions—more than we need to, because I’m not sure if it matters how they function, or that their holy book is written by a deliberately inbred prophet (who ultimately has some Chainsaw Massacre tendencies). The nope moment occurs when the outsiders are viewing a cultural ceremony which results in a man and a woman jump off a cliff to their deaths. Some of the outsiders are horrified, although more interestingly Christian and Josh really aren’t—they see the anthropology grad student equivalent of dollars signs in their eyes.
The movie probably is fundamentally about the relationship between Christian and Dani. He doesn’t really see her. He doesn’t, as Pelle manipulatively but rightly points out, make her feel held. This was a super interesting thematic aspect that I wish was tied more to Dani’s trauma. We know her sister’s action has basically orphaned her, but I felt like the movie was on the verge of saying something interesting about romantic relationships that ultimately it didn’t say. Christian is selfish. He doesn’t think, wow, we just witnessed two violent suicides while my girlfriend is still suffering from PTSD after her entire family was killed— maybe we should get out of here and eat comforting Toblerone at the airport ASAP. There always has to be some compelling reason why people in horror movies stay in bad places: haunted houses, creepy asylums, communes where people smile a little too widely. The reason in this case is that Christian and Josh have decided they want to do anthropological research at the commune. (One thing that felt spot-on about Christian was that he was lagging in trying to figure out what his thesis would be—ultimately his idea is derivative of Josh’s).
A lot of the foreshadowing is so direct that it isn’t even really foreshadowing: we see historical renderings of a woman feeding a man pubic hair and menstrual blood (Josh is then fed such a . . . meat pie. . . by a witchy ginger who wants his sperms); we see a bear being set on fire (Josh eventually goes out tauntaun style in a bear). This made things less tense. We know that people are going to get up in the middle of the night and do unwise things and get caught. I was more interested in Dani’s nightmares, which connected to the horror of her family’s death. Lately I’ve been thinking about how all horror, fundamentally at its core, is about the fear of death. We’re terrified of monsters, but we’re never going to encounter them—the only real terror is the very probable terror of having the deal with the death of loved ones (and ourselves, eventually).
As expected, both Christian and Dani are made to succumb to the cult. Dani feels some terror and confusion and gets drugged out of her mind, but in an interesting scene (that brought to mind the remake of Suspira) she connects with them emotionally as they mirror back her screams in a moment of emotional distress. She dances in an endurance contest, losing sense of reality and her identity. Ultimately, and as you suspect, she is named queen of the festivities and is given a choice to pick the last of the human sacrifices. Shall she pick Jorgen-or-whatever-blond-anonymous-dude, or Christian, whom she has just discovered having sex with the ginger witch? (to be fair the sex was bizarre and not exactly consensual—on the other hand, Christian is a douchecanoe, and you get the sense that her decision to select him isn’t entirely about that particular act, but her disappointment with him in general).
So . . there’s the movie. For all its flaws and ridiculousness, I liked Suspira for the thematic content about women, about power, and maybe even about dance. Midsommar felt like it started to kind of be about something (Dani’s orphaning) while also being about something else (her relationship with Christian), but then veered into something else (a LOT of showing things about the cult which ultimately don’t matter) without dipping its toes back into the first two things enough. What, then, is the movie saying — that douchcanoes are disappointing—? they are, but is the cult just a vehicle for demonstrating this? Texas Chain is not a movie about the relationships between the kids who eventually run into Leatherface—it’s a story about a family. Hereditary is a story about mourning; The Witch is a story about the control and repression of women. I think Midsommar is missing the final stitch or two that would have tied the whole thing together.