Midsommar ★★★★

On the heels of the great Hereditary Ari Aster similarly revisits that realm of "grief horror" with his second feature film, Midsommar. The movie is unique for the way it uses the constant daylight of the Scandinavian north as a way to mask the threats posed to the characters. At the same time, threat is culturally-relative. So is horror.

Midsommar makes Aster feel like he definitely has a "type" of film he wants to make. Many of the recognizable elements from Hereditary also feature here: a bonkers ending, a farcical sense of cosmic cruelty, a horrific act of real-life tragic violence that upends the protagonist's life followed by a gut-wrenching scene of bare, wailing grief. Only this time, that act is presented as the film's stylistic opening sequence, from which everything else flows.

After a tragedy strikes her family, Dani (Florence Pugh) decides to join her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), and his friends on an academic/drug trip to a remote community in Sweden. Think Burning Man meets The Wicker Man . Early on the rift between Christian and Dani is made evident: his friends don't like her and he seemed primed to break up with her before her life took such a jarring turn. Dani's is a uniquely gendered experience, surprising for a male filmmaker, but he is one who clearly identifies with Dani more than any of the film's male characters. Fundamentally, the "problems" Dani presents to the group stem from her having emotional needs Christian is unwilling or unable to meet. She has trauma. She has mental illness. If that wasn't enough to give the audience a reason to sympathize with her, Christian's frequent gaslighting and manipulation certainly do.

The ritualistic culture of the pagan commune is strange to the American (and British) outsiders, but each increasingly unsettling and often violent act comes with a cultural explanation. Much of how one responds to Aster's entire effort here will hinge on the degree to which the audience is willing to experience the community's violence as justified or not, and that will hinge on the degree to which the audience feels these various outsiders are deserving of it. I found this played much more like a traditional slasher film in the sense that its characters feel inclined to put themselves in danger and thus seem expendable in a way the family in Hereditary never did. That makes this film more 'fun' to watch, but ultimately less complex and less satisfying.

The final act of this (long) film may represent a kind of freedom, but at what cost? Christian comes off as so one-dimensionally awful—even his friend (William Jackson Harper) eventually realizes this when Christian tries to steal his thesis idea—that the events leading to the film's end make it hard to sympathize with his being made an unwilling participant. A more complex portrait of a relationship, where we're realizing Christian's toxic presence in Dani's life at the same time she is, would have made for a more interesting film. This one, while wildly enjoyable and brimming with Aster's dark humour and distinct tonal and visual style, falls short of the effectiveness of Hereditary and its meditation on the effects of grief, pain, and sickness.

But we come back to that element of freedom. Seeing Dani's pain acknowledged by the community in a way Christian was never able to is moving despite the sheer discomfort and alien nature of the environment it comes from. How she comes by that freedom in the end might feel extreme, but it works by seeing Dani's journey less literally and more symbolic of the ways cutting ties to toxic people can feel violent.

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