This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Chris Richmond’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
It's always fun when my Letterboxd friends are somewhat equally divided into love/hate camps for a film I neither love nor hate.
Allow me to piss basically everyone off by explaining my agreement with each camp and why I think this is an intriguing and decent film but not at all a great one.
I loved Hereditary, (Review) in part thanks to the way the story unfolded and the way things seemed to continually escalate despite starting from an already harrowing and intense place.
That said, Hereditary's biggest problems (relatively speaking) lay in its rushed, somewhat disconnected ending 20 minutes and its only somewhat cohesive treatment of its themes and characters.
Those issues are much exacerbated here, and other problems present themselves that aren't exactly "new" but can no longer be hand-waved away with as much benefit of the doubt.
Midsommar's plot and themes are laid bare nearly from the jump: our protagonist is being gaslighted by someone who is fundamentally manipulative but so dishonest and out-of-touch with genuine feeling that it's unclear how much they even realize who they are and what they do.
Our same protagonist is also struck with a horrific, brutal tragedy, and here our first issues begin.
Deaths in the family, particularly suicides, at the onset of narratives are a classic way to gain easy empathy for characters, and of course any story ostensibly dealing with grief necessitates something to grieve over.
With that said, this is over the top and unseemly in almost every way.
To not only have her sister kill herself with only a cryptic online message but to also murder both their parents in cold blood is already pretty hard to swallow.
To then attribute it to her sister being bi-polar goes from "yeah, right" to "hold up."
This is a pretty big deal. And I'm not usually the type (not that I'm dismissing or demeaning people who do this; it's fine) to add trigger warnings or dissect quasi-ambiguous implications on stuff like this, but this just seems too clearly problematic.
I've known several people who were bi-polar (and I probably know more who just haven't informed me). Some of them were difficult to be around or struggled sometimes, but none of them ever made me feel threatened.
That isn't to say bi-polar people can't be violent. But it is to say the idea that bi-polar people are more likely to be violent, especially murderous, is unfounded.
Meanwhile, the elevated risk of bi-polar people attempted and/or committing suicide is very real.
This makes things even worse, because we have a shockingly (intentionally so) awful event that (in terms of its relationship to reality) tells truth and lies simultaneously. So if you're someone who's already aware the suicide angle is scientifically in line, you might (wrongfully) assume negative things about people with bipolar disorder.
Given there's already a negative stigma around mental health disorders in general, and given that this stigma contributes to the elevated suicidal tendencies in that population, what the fuck were Aster and company thinking?
This ends up tying into one of the biggest recurrent issues in the script and thus story within Midsommar: we're either told too little or too much (usually the latter), with no apparent reasoning or master plan behind it.
If we weren't given the explanation of bi-polar disorder specifically, we wouldn't have to think about whether it jives. Or if we knew more about her individual character, we could make sense of what other factors may have contributed, able to view things in a more specific lens.
Instead, we know just enough about this to know it shouldn't make sense and has nasty implications.
Yet everyone in the film seems to pretty much go, "Yeah, that kinda makes sense."
There's no mention of any criminal investigation. There are no clues indicating the possibility it wasn't actually her sister that did this. No precipitating events discussed. No funeral scene. No other family or friends that knew these three enter.
Really, the only reason we drag for 20 minutes before Sweden is so that Aster can milk the shocking imagery of the family deaths, the repeated Christian-is-in-a-mirror-or-turned-away-because-he's-not-really-here-with-her-get-it? shots, and the looped nature of these characters, particularly Christian.
Midsommar has no complex characters (maybe Dani, but not IMO) who aren't just a repeating gag or trait.
Isn't it amazing that Christian (although Pelle is another semi-valid option) might be the second-most showcased and "developed" character here?
I mean, we really get no sense of him as a human being. We see the gaslighting, going-through-motions, the standoffish, roaming nature.
But he has no interests, no attitude, no real personality, other than the manipulation.
If you wanna argue that's the point, fair enough, but most people in real life who do this are actually usually MORE charismatic and personable as a cover for their deception. The idea that he's this obvious about it and Dani has somehow not noticed is kinda ridiculous.
The dude forgets how many YEARS they've dated? And you're ALSO going to have him forget her birthday, despite specifically mentioning it's the day they arrive. Come on. This is lazy. Might as well throw in another line about forgetting her parents died, right? Or have him blank on her name? Even if you buy that, hammering it in this hard is the opposite of subtle.
Christian can't seem to decide whether he's a narcissist or a masochist, not that they're necessarily mutually exclusive. But whether he's fundamentally selfish and aware or just delusional and inconsiderate isn't clear. And the film can't decide whether it cares.
His ultimate fate's function as catharsis for either Dani, Aster, or the viewer is gross and confusing if you ask me.
I don't see how Dani gains catharsis. Ostensibly it's because ordering her boyfriend to be burned alive is somehow thematically parallel to cutting someone toxic out of her life, but that just doesn't work for me.
Firstly, there's a difference between cutting someone out and hurting them for revenge. That the film fails to recognize this is irrelevant to its truth.
There are times in life when we need to distance ourselves from people who hurt us. That's a good thing. That's progress.
But if you just wanna hurt them back, that's not progress, and it won't bring you any kind of real satisfaction. That's a bad thing. That's vindictiveness.
Here, we get both and no addendum indicating whether one was more the reason or whether the film acknowledges the difference at all.
Really, Midsommar's entire conglomerate of issues keeps coming back to the same problem: these scriptwriters don't know how to progress a character.
Most of them are killed off before they even have an independent personal conflict. (Parents, Simon, Connie, Mark)
Otherwise, if they do have a personal conflict, it's resolved with DEATH! (Sister's bipolar struggles, Josh's feud with Christian/curiosity about the cult, Christian's dishonesty) Real exciting and thought-provoking, right? Why finish a storyline when you can just snip it?
The two remaining characters, Dani and Pelle, are exactly where they started, except the former is now even less sane and newly single.
What's the implication? That now Dani will be happier? Maybe, but surely we would not think that therefore means this outcome was for her benefit or ultimately positive, which sure does put a dent in the whole tHeMaTiC pArAlLeL, yeah?
Is the implication that Pelle will be Dani's new boyfriend/husband/cult-life-partner? And that's gonna be a healthy relationship? Ya'll realize he lied to literally all of them, right? That he literally snaked them to another country to be human sacrifices and brought her along so her boyfriend could be drugged and raped before she was put in a position to choose (again, while drugged) to have him burned alive?
Pelle's a terrible person, peeps! He's even worse than Christian! Christian is a dishonest dick, but there's no reason to think he would murder anyone, much less MULTIPLE PEOPLE.
And this is part of the problem with mixing so many plotlines, characters, themes, and ideas and being loud and imagistic without being meticulous or structured. Things get too muddled. The lack of cohesion and balance among the themes and events here is what makes this feel thrown together.
Jake Cole's great review touches on this:
Aster loses focus almost immediately, occasionally circling back around to remind the audience of Christian's emotional obliviousness in the most blunt terms imaginable, completely unrelated to the narrative turn to laying out the cult in the most tediously thorough ways.
Compare the total disconnect of text and subtext to how, say, the fear of rape totally and completely suffuses the likes of Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby or Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, where story, meaning and style are all in horrific unity in developing their themes through images and the jagged, subjective rendering of plot.
Partly because of the imbalance with which this is presented, you have people on this site legitimately convinced that Christian is the only REALLY bad guy here, or worse that he actually DESERVED to be raped and burned alive.
Sorry, but if the genders were flipped, or if this wasn't framed as karma, there would be a very different reaction, and that's troubling.
We need to realize that Christian's gaslighting is wrong AND drugging people and raping and murdering them is not excused by that person's past behavior. Even if they are a man, and even if they've been shitty. Like, duh.
Again, this hyperbolic and misplaced sense of any kind of justice or evening of the scales here is crazy. Sadly, it's a crazy the film seems to (wittingly or not) endorse moreso than warn against.
And if anyone wants to come to the comments and pretend me saying that is tantamount to defending Christian's actions, you're part of the problem. Grow up and read, please.
Zero (maybe one if you argue Dani, but I don't really buy that) of these characters progress or develop. Several of them reveal who they actually are, but exactly zero people gain insight, learn lessons, grow, or change themselves.
Again, you can argue that's the point. But if you argue that, you have to admit that the faux-contrast of Pelle's deception and manipulation with Christian's is pointless and mucky.
And to have Dani actually suddenly realize how shitty Christian is because the guy who lied to them about his crazy, murderous cult kisses her, despite her being in a relationship and him not asking permission, says so: come on.
In abusive relationships involving gaslighting and someone inaccurately blaming themselves for the behavior of the abuser, there would realistically be a lot more backlash and denial on Dani's part, even given her growing doubts. Especially in the wake of such grief with no one else to turn to.
On that note, why do we only get like two lines from Dani's apparent only friend? Why even involve her at all if she's just there to disappear? Characters are just names (in her case not even that!) attached to necessary dialogue here.
That questioning can be applied to all kinds of things:
Why explain so much about the inner workings of the cult if we can't tell how much is honest or how much it even matters and the people who would care within the story are all gonna die?
Why showcase Simon and Connie having realistic, understandable, everyday-person reactions to the brutal violence if you're going to have all the others more or less shrug it off? Is it just because Americans are supposedly cooler with ritual killings than the British?
Why foreshadow things that you're just going to re-explain twice in the next half hour anyway? (Most egregious IMO with the pube-love-potion thing, but see this review for other examples)
There are still lots of good things here.
The cinematography is very nice, with an oddly radiant and bright look that does a great job avoiding being washed out, just on the edge. The colors, particularly greens and reds, are vibrant and beautiful, providing contrast between sight and feeling.
Shots often manage to portray wide landscapes with relatively large depth of field and while seeming nearer to the viewer than those types of shots generally convey.
The editing is a mixed bag. There are neat moments of alteration in time and space, particularly during some of the more psychedelic sequences (side note: this is arguably the most visually spot-on representation of low-dose tripping I've seen in a film), that really put you in the moment, with hypnotic unease.
But these moments also tend to drag a bit, often nearly as needlessly repetitive as the script. Needless shots, shot durations, and even lines are present constantly, though thankfully never concentrated too much at one time. Still, given the bloated length of the final product and the general homogeneity after the first 20 minutes, it's disappointing this couldn't have been tightened up a bit.
The sound design is a huge plus, with the score fitting wonderfully and an intelligent use of natural sound and silence intermittently.
The performances are all about as good as you can ask for, though I think the script somewhat limits the performers, particularly Jack Reynor.
Still, Florence Pugh's continuous flood of on-screen emotion is impressive, and even in the most over-the-top moments I don't feel taken out of it or awkward, as for example I sometimes felt in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. (Review)
It's just too bad there's not more depth or progression in the story-at-large (which is telegraphed and goes in exactly one, obvious direction) or the individual characters' arcs to have some kind of diversity in what we're experiencing.
I think there are other elements of this that are potentially awesome but effectually failing.
The cult's direct mimicry of voice and body language in an attempt at group empathy is a kind of profound idea, in some ways reminding me of the opening of 2001: we're all just animals exhibiting learned behavior (either by instinct or by practice).
It is interesting to question whether this sort of automatic and "unintelligent" display of empathy is in some ways more genuine and helpful than "intelligent" or "aware" but half-hearted or dispassionate displays by the non-cult members, specifically Christian.
But the context makes that hard to realistically consider here. It's just a cool idea that could work in a different movie where the people who exhibited that didn't just decide to kidnap and sacrifice people and lie to even their own members who volunteered as sacrifices about whether they would feel pain.
Maybe that's the point? That their empathy is just as cheap and dishonest and ostentatious? But again, despite that feeling like the correct take, that doesn't feel like what the film is saying.
Similarly, the attempted parallel between the ritual killings of the old pair and the murder-suicide of Dani's family are clumsy at best and outright backwards at worst.
Perhaps the idea is that Dani is only imagining them as parallel because she's confused or misreading it? But again, the film doesn't really seem to convey this as much as it conveys something like "Dani's subconscious is realizing these really aren't so different after all."
Again, the only way they could be parallel is if you simply viewed them both as awful murderous things caused by delusion, which, given Dani's trajectory from that point, doesn't at all seem to be her line of thinking.
Random note: there are further (needless) issues with the presentation and rhetoric concerning the disabled person in the cult and (depending on your view) disabled people in general. I won't dive into that here, but I felt it worth mentioning, and others have discussed it in the reviews I've liked if you'd care to read more about it.
At the end of the day, I like the pieces of this film a lot more than I like this film.
I feel like with a re-write or two and a runtime 10 or 15 minutes shorter, this could have been a truly powerful and complex horror landmark.
Instead, it's impressive showmanship and daring decisions mixed with some cheap tricks and lazy storytelling.
By the way, if people want to argue this is basically a Wicker Man (Review) remake, I could agree, but if they want to argue that's a bad thing, I'll disagree. In fact, if this had been billed as a remake or tribute to Wicker Man first and foremost, I'd probably be more willing to agree it was successful in its aims.