In Midsommar, the horror of a Swedish cult ritual takes a backseat to the horror of a decaying, toxic relationship.
Nothing is worse than hanging out with a couple at the end of their relationship. The snide remarks, the palpable tension in the air, the frustrating lack of action. These situations can be unbearable, and only seem worse once the couple finally cuts ties.
Midsommar takes that scenario and meshes it with a folk-horror film, merging a drama about a couple’s dying love and a slasher film about a killer Swedish pagan cult. The result is a film that finds horror not only in ritualistically mutilated bodies, but also in the strong emotions created by a nasty break-up.
The doomed couple in this case is Dani and Christian. While both are on the verge of breaking things off, Dani experiences a family tragedy that pushes both their issues to the side. After a few months of recovery, Dani discovers that Christian is leaving with his friends on a trip to Sweden to see a local week long mid-summer festival. He reluctantly invites Dani, and the trip becomes an unspoken last-ditch attempt to save their relationship.
Once the group arrives, things immediately feel off. Not only are they foreign to this town and their traditions, but someone on the trip has brought psychedelic drugs, the taking of which only further fuels the group’s paranoia. In the midst of these personal issues, the midsummer festival becomes a week long cult-like ritual, one that no one seems able to escape from.
In contrast to director Ari Aster’s last film Hereditary, Midsommar is drenched in color and sunlight. The flora surrounding the village and costumes pop off the screen, and the cinematography is just as gorgeous. Most of the film is set during the day, which makes every horrific scene all the more unnatural — these acts are not hidden in the dark, but openly displayed in daylight.
Midsommar plays with many genres and tones outside of horror. There are horrific elements, like gory rituals and a slasher-film style of picking off characters, but there’s so much more going on around these genre tropes. There’s the comedic aspect of the film, which pokes fun at the way American society clashes with the Swedish village’s traditional Pagan-esque rituals. Many moments in the film are hilarious, and some scenes near the end are so bizarre, it’s unclear if the audience should laugh, scream, or both.
The film also plays with psychedelic imagery and states of mind, further disorienting the characters and the audience. In order to show these effects, the filmmakers found a way to make the foliage appear to breathe, along with many other distortions that begin subtly before becoming alarmingly noticeable. These effects do a great job at getting the audience into the headspace of the characters, helping to explain some of their more bizarre choices near the end.
Midsommar is constantly foreshadowing itself, either with the traditional folk art covering every surface of the village, or in the character dynamics and dialogue. At the beginning of many scenes, the audience will probably know where things are going. When you see two people walking up to the top of a cliff, you can probably tell what will happen next. What Aster excels at is stretching out these engagements, playing with expectation and time and paying off with truly shocking and unsettling imagery.
These scenes feel just as drawn-out as Dani and Christian’s relationship, which serves as the main conflict of the film. Their interactions are so awkward and forced, they can be just as excruciating as the rituals. Yet, both main actors, Florence Pugh as Dani and Jack Reynor as Christian, are fantastic in their own ways.
Reynor is excellent at playing a mildly unlikable person, whose truly awful traits are slowly but surely revealed. The one who owns the film is Pugh, who’s performance is just as Oscar worthy as Toni Collette’s in Hereditary. She has to display such a wide range of emotions, varying from simmering anger to explosions of sadness. She effortlessly sells many moments that could become laughable in the wrong hands.
While Midsommar does have nightmarish imagery and a creepy Swedish cult, it’s a film that seems more interested in the relationships between these characters, specifically the imploding love between Dani and Christian. There’s a lingering sense of dread and tension, not only around what the village is planning, but also around the way the two leads speak to each other. We see how Dani sacrifices her feelings for Christian’s well-being, and how he can’t even begin to do the same for her.
The finale is at once horrific and cathartic; few moments in film are as stress-relieving as the last five minutes of Midsommar. It feels as if a great weight has been lifted, personifying the sigh of relief once someone has moved on from a nasty break-up. Midsommar is a horror film, but its true horror is the way we feel inside.