There’s a roiling, sickening feeling left in your stomach once the end credits roll in Midsommar. While the thematic elements of the film might not be articulated with sufficient clarity and precision, the movie uses a multi-pronged approach to create a wholesomely unsettling experience. Director Ari Aster called it a breakup movie masquerading as a folk horror flick, which is a perfect description to distill the entire affair. I would, however, broaden that perspective to say it’s about being trapped in a middling existence you’re trying to break free from, whether that involves a relationship or something entirely different like a troubled family past.
Our main character in the film, Dani (Florence Pugh), is hurting on multiple fronts. We start with the horrifying deaths of her family, which her sister Terri orchestrates in a murder-suicide ploy through carbon monoxide inhalation. Sister, mother, and father are trapped inside their home as it’s turned into a gas chamber, and the hauntingly slow pace of the camera as it meanders through the house, revealing each demise, is stomach-churning. It’s made worse by the sounds in the background. Dani crying her heart out while a violin’s pitch mimics that of an emergency siren. It all comes together for a murderous soundtrack married perfectly with the imagery we see.
There to console Dani is her reluctant boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), who was being chastised by his friends before the deaths to break up with Dani. Now, of course, given the incredibly fragile and delicate situation he finds Dani in, he chooses not to. A break up on top of three family deaths? Come on now. Even his attempt at temporary freedom by way of a visit to Sweden is impeded when his guilty conscience forces him to invite Dani along. The couple travels with their friends to attend a midsummer celebration at an old commune to which Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), one of their said friends, belongs to. What initially seems like an idyllic sanctuary cut off from civilization looks to be a pagan cult entrenched in barbaric and morbid rituals. The question then becomes whether any of our American tourists can escape this Scandinavian hell hole, or whether they even want to.
So many processes work to amplify the claustrophobic stranglehold in this movie. Most importantly, the cinematography is more depressive than manic with the cameras operating at a snail’s pace, taking their time to dwell and ponder on every single detail. The camera is laser-focused on the awkward tension between Dani and Christian, letting every pause and stutter marinate until it’s the perfect time to cook up some juicier scenes later on. Whether it’s the distance between them or the lack of conversation, the stillness brings it all front and center. At other times, the visual gaze stalks the habits and routines of the commune and our visitors, enthralling us in the eccentricities involved. Meals with the silence cut only by the clanking of silverware. Commune members standing idle for minutes on end. Elders taken in a procession all the way up to the top of a cliff. It’s all very slow, but it’s never dull. It’s like watching a show on Discovery about a bizarre group of people, practicing antiquated, and in some cases, ancient practices. The only difference this time around, though, is that while it’s fascinating, to begin with, it quickly veers into eye-opening territory. To put it succinctly, this movie isn’t for the faint of heart.
The nature of the acts and the slow pace compound to create an entirely unnatural environment, putting forth a highly unusual paradox: the feeling of being trapped outside in nature. It’s all open fields of green and mountain tops decorated with trees. Blue skies with crisp white clouds and not a gloomy streak in sight. There’s no end to nature’s hold on this place, and that’s precisely why it’s so disconcerting. There doesn’t seem to be a way back for our visitors. The journey into the commune revealed as much. Pelle drives the crew to a pit stop where he meets a small contingent of his commune. From there on out, everyone travels by foot, with a bird’s eye view of our travelers’ path revealing a winding track taken through the woods. Will Poulter’s Mark asks the most important question, “Jesus, Pelle. Where are you taking us?” while a flute plays in the background to sedate any of our concerns. Once they find themselves walking through a wooden arch entrance and into what seems like zen country, there’s no telling how they got there. Yes, nature calm be extremely calming as a break from urban society, but if it’s all you can fathom from here on out?
Time stretches and warps itself, just like nature does in this film. Despite a two-and-a-half-hour runtime, Midsommar won’t test your patience. It’s visually and auditorily arresting so that a single event can hold your focus and concentration for what seems like an eternity. It’s through a perfect balancing act between shock and foreboding, between not knowing what’s around the corner yet knowing enough to understand that it’s not going to be ominous.
Midsommar looks at characters with dark clouds hanging over them, especially our lead Dani. Then, in sadistic fashion, it tosses these characters into the worst possible location they could imagine, a place that will test their spirits and sanity. Tragedy is universal, but our visitors will need to discover if it’s crippling in its effects or illuminating, allowing them to break free from its shackles or be bound to them.
Feel free to check out our other horror reviews while you’re at it.