A couple travels to Sweden to visit a rural hometown's fabled mid-summer festival. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult.
Ari Aster’s second feature film release follows a group of friends to Sweden as they take part in a ritualistic summer festival. Shades of Wicker Man abound as the Hereditary director attempts to weave a disturbing, unsettling, story into a beautifully captured world. How does he do? Well, let’s take a look as we review Midsommar.
Well, not really, there isn’t much fun to be had here. Midsommar presents as a disturbing exploration of human relationships and grief laced with psychedelic colours and very little remorse for the viewer’s senses. From the first ten minutes it becomes pretty obvious that Midsommar is attempting to open a wound that the director can prod and scrape at throughout its not insignificant 147 minute run time.
Stunning cinematography contrasts starkly against the grim events of the story leaving you feeling somewhat exhausted and, dare I say it, confused. Confused, not by the story itself, but by the two hours worth of sensory overload. Ari Aster is a cruel scientist when it comes to horror movie experimentation but it’s hard to argue that he isn’t a talented one. Midsommar may not be for everyone but, like Hereditary, you will walk away from the screen thinking about it and it will occupy a part of your mind for some time after.
The influence is very clear here and it is difficult to speak about Midsommar without mentioning Robin Hardy’s classic horror Wicker Man. The similarities are very apparent but to dismiss Midsommar as a Wicker Man for the modern age would be somewhat ignorant of its actual story.
Midsommar, at its heart, is a story of grief and of failing relationships. It is a study of human emotion and dependency that just happens to be set around a cult like group of people. The villagers are not the villains of Midsommar, grief is and the people occupying its world are little more than collateral damage. The stories of the two main characters, Dani and Christian (played by Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor respectively), just happen to run alongside the events of the Midsommar festival.
This differs hugely from Wicker Man; Wicker Man was a story about a group of Pagan like people and their victims. Of course, the settings are similar and there are plenty of familiar plot elements but the core stories are different enough that these plot elements are where the similarities end.
For those of you who have watched Hereditary, you will have some appreciation of the focus Ari Aster likes to place on grief. Raw performances are at the core of his films and Midsommar is no exception. We open up with the main character, Dani, concerning over an email she has received from her sister. We find out that her sister suffers from Bipolar Disorder and she has sent a vague email saying goodbye to Dani and claiming that their parents were going with her. Dani contacts her boyfriend who reassures her that her sister is simply attention seeking and not to worry. Minutes later, however, Dani phones back sobbing uncontrollably and the Ari Aster grief train has departed.
Now, it is maybe not relevant to this review in any major way but I suffer from Bipolar Disorder and have had to live with the stigma attached to it for my entire life. Whenever there is a reference to it that is handled poorly I can’t help but roll my eyes a bit. I was rolling my eyes pretty hard here but the end result actually surprised me.
I think it’s important to understand that people who suffer from severe mental illnesses should be taken seriously when they cry out for help and perhaps portraying that in film form is a good way to get that across to people. I would prefer we don’t go the non-medication compliant, insane, person that kills their parents and themselves route but that is an unfortunate reality of some mental illness. I don’t think it was negatively exploited here like in some films and maybe there is a buried message here that a quick welfare check by the appropriate authorities may be in order if you are worried about an ill relative and can’t get to them yourself. It would have made all the difference to Dani’s situation.
Moving on from the tragic events that open the movie, we pick things up a few months later. Dani’s boyfriend, Christian, reluctantly invites Dani to come along with him and his friends to Sweden. Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), a friend of Christian, is originally from a small commune in Hälsingland and has requested his friends come on a trip with him to his home to celebrate the Midsummer festival. The festival only occurs once every 90 years and the group are eager to have some fun while Josh (William Jackson Harper) is keen to study Pelle’s people’s festival for his Thesis. Dani was apparently not particularly interested in the idea of travelling to Sweden but her obvious dependency on her boyfriend, Christian, drives her to follow him
The group travel together and, after awhile meet up with other travelers similar to themselves. Other members of the commune, much like Pelle, have left to travel the world and returned with outsiders from different places all with the shared goal of taking part in the midsummer festival. Over the course of the next few days, events occur that disturb Dani and open her eyes to the inadequacies of her emotionally distant partner.
Midsommar is an absolutely beautiful film to look at. Horror movies rarely look this good and you are almost always taken aback by both the scenery and the camera work. Colours pop of the screen in an almost psychedelic manner and everything has something of an oil painting quality to it.
The events happening on screen contrast so sharply with the picturesque scenery and camera work. The fact that everything that takes place does so in such a beautiful environment and in broad daylight actually adds to the horror element.
There are a few shots that I did question the direction of, however. Images being flipped upside down and spinning camera angles left me feeling almost queasy. I understand the reasoning for it but I just felt as though it didn’t work. Pulsating parts of the costumes and sets, seemingly added via CG, looked pretty poor, as well, and were almost video game like. Yes, I get that we are supposed to relate to how Dani is feeling but I can do that without the gaudy effects.
I can’t really go too much into the story of Midsommar here as I have an earnest desire to keep my reviews as spoiler free as possible. What I can say, however, is that Midsommar is becoming particularly notorious for certain disturbing scenes. In fact, when we were standing there waiting to get shown to the screen, the usher at the cinema said “Now that is a bad film.. And I don’t mean bad as in not good, I mean bad as in horrible. People are coming out telling me how disgusting it is”.
Perhaps I am desensitized but I wasn’t particularly struck by any of the scenes. I can see which ones people are referring to but I didn’t find them to be that bad, to be honest. I actually think veterans of the horror genre have probably seen it all before.
Is Midsommar graphic, at times? Definitely! Would I say it is somewhat indulgent in its portrayal of injury? Yes. I wouldn’t, however, say it is as bad as a lot of people would lead you to believe. I would actually say it is somewhat cartoon like and aimed purely at shocking the viewer. I didn’t witness anyone walking out of the cinema and there was no audible gasps. There were walkouts in American Sniper and even Disney’s Christmas Carol when we watched them but everyone stayed firmly planted for Midsommar so I think people are overrating the disturbing nature a little.
I would say, however, if you are a little put off by depictions of injuries, you may want to avoid Midsommar. There are a couple of scenes that will probably upset people who aren’t veterans of horror.
There are a few scenes, especially towards the end of the movie, where you are likely to feel pretty awkward. Whether this is intended or not, I don’t know, but it’s hard not to laugh out loud. There is one particular scene near the end that was even more awkward than the rest. It was a surreal experience to be watching a very serious horror movie only to have an entire cinema screen erupt laughing and I think it maybe detracted from the severity of the situation just a tad.
In my personal opinion, some of the ways the members of the commune act came across as slightly awkward. I am sure there is some intention here; we do need to fear these almost pagan like people after all. I just felt as though it wasn’t at all natural and the people performing the actions looked as though it was their first time doing it. Surely something as simple as your standard commune greeting shouldn’t seem so forced and confused? They looked like awkward NPCs in an old video game interacting with each other.
Speaking of awkward, there are some scenes featuring full male and female nudity and a lot of drug use on top of the violence so that is worth keeping in mind if you are put off by that type of thing.
Florence Pugh is, for the most part, pretty good as Dani. I am seeing a lot of hyperbole surrounding her performance. I think she did well but I felt as though she overacted at times. I would put this down to Ari Aster more than anything, though, as he loves to drag these weepy, over the top, performances out of his female leads.
For me, the rest of the cast was a mix of average and plain bad. Vilhelm Blomgren, as Pelle, came across as pure creepy and I have no clue why anyone would want to spend a week with this person in a secluded part of his home country. Maybe the character was supposed to come across like this? Is it a good thing that I am not sure? Probably not. Will Poulter, as Christian’s friend Mark, felt really out of place. He cracks numerous jokes but didn’t elicit a single laugh from a full cinema screen. At times, however, he feels like the only actual human in the movie as his reactions are somewhat relate-able. William Jackson Harper did a nice, believable, job as Josh.
Jack Reynor was a huge let down. He seemed disconnected from the events of the movie and some of his reactions were so unbelievable as to really take me out of the moment. Some of the extras looked as though they were lacking direction, as well. Just standing around looking lost and confused as events unfolded around them. This isn’t a huge problem but it is something I noticed a few times.
This is the best way I can describe Midsommar. It is a bold movie that is very daring in many ways. Taking such a slow burn approach to what is essentially a film about a dying relationship and masking it in a Wicker Man esque folk horror is risky. For the most part, it actually works quite well. When I look back on it, however, I can’t help but think of all of the elements separately and how they ultimately didn’t gel together too well.
Pacing is a little off and the film can seem confused at times, almost unsure of where it wants to go and what it wants to be. It feels as though some scenes are missing and as though even the actors are a little unsure of what is going on. I will point out that Midsommar is absolutely full of metaphors and foreshadowing that can really make you think when the movie ends. It’s a great movie to chat about with another horror fan though I won’t go into it here as we are spoiler free.
With the positives and negatives in mind, let’s not forget that this is only Ari Aster’s second feature film. A few slip ups here and there are to be expected. With more time and experience, I would expect much tighter movies with better pacing and a clearer vision of what they want to be.
Midsommar is a gorgeous horror movie that suffers a little from its own ambition. It is a slow burn story of grief and relationships that sometimes stumbles due to pacing issues and a slightly confused plot. Acting ranges from great to pretty poor and the story can be dragged down a little bit by some of the character's unrealistic reactions to events.
Midsommar is not a scary horror movie, it will leave you feeling uneasy and stay with you when you leave the screen but it will not scare you. It is, however, a more than suitable follow up to Hereditary. Regardless of the score I give the movie here, you absolutely have to see it and make up your own mind. At the very least, it will make you think and isn't that the best thing about the horror genre?