For me, MIDSOMMAR (2019) started off with a strange, off-kilter vibe that was not entirely a good thing, but once it got going, its characters, pacing, realistic horror, and effective storytelling swept me along for one hell of an intense ride.
Written and directed by Ari Aster, known for his uneven but powerful HEREDITARY, the story begins with Dani (the cherubic Florence Pugh, who plays the role with a childlike vulnerability), an anxious college student worrying about her sister, who has bipolar disorder. Meanwhile, her boyfriend, Christian (the solid Jack Reynor), is planning a trip to Sweden with his buds (at the invitation of a Swedish friend), where they hope to visit a remote commune’s Midsommar festival where the friend is from. This year, the festival is particularly special, as it occurs every ninety years.
Right away, we can tell Dani’s and Christian’s relationship is not a happy one. She is needy and nagging, constantly makes excuses for him not giving her what she needs, and backs down quickly during conflict. He is weak in character, is giving her his minimum effort, and wants to break up, but he doesn’t want to hurt her. After tragedy befalls Dani’s sister, he stays with her out of a guilty sense of obligation, and ends up inviting her on the trip due to the same.
Their visit to the commune is wonderfully strange, though things start to get dark and then just get darker. Much of the horror happens off screen, and while we know something terrible has happened, the characters don’t, caught up in their relationships. Everything builds towards a searing climax that we know will come–much of what happens is expected if you’ve ever seen or even heard of the 1970s classic THE WICKER MAN–but Aster pulls it off in a way that is just as powerful while feeling fresh, added by camera work and storytelling that is very sympathetic to point of view, right down to reality warping due to hallucinogenics the villagers feed them as part of the festival’s rituals.
Probably what I liked most about this movie was the characters. Horror often has a strong sense of justice to it. Example: You were warned not to read the evil book but you did, so now you get what’s coming to you. In this story, Dani and Christian are presented as a very real couple, which leaves her longing for feeling surrounded by love and him guiltily longing for escape. The justice that ends up delivered is not objective but rather very personal to one of the characters, who makes a sacrifice to get what they want. Similarly, Christian’s friends aren’t a bunch of jerkish bros but rather real guys who’d been hoping for a bro trip but now have to deal with one of their own bringing his girlfriend, which they do kindly but uncomfortably. When bad things happen, all of the characters behave very realistically, right down to Dani’s panic attacks. This grounds what otherwise might have been a cartoonish cult movie and makes it something far more visceral.
Another aspect of realism comes from the world building, which is fantastic. The commune feels very real, their religion steeped in ancient tradition. The villagers’ participation in the rituals is real and affecting, and every ritual has a clear purpose and says: we are together, and what happens to you, happens to me; what you need, I will give you; we will survive or perish as a community. As the viewer, we don’t get to see any sense of conflict on the part of any of the villagers that what they’re doing is morally wrong, they are uniform in belief and action, but this is understandable as clearly they accept death as a natural and necessary act as part of the cycle of the earth’s renewal, which requires everybody to do their part.
The only criticism I have is the film starts with some heavy-handed camera work and awkward storytelling that makes the opening scenes a bit off-kilter. I know we’re supposed to be inside Dani’s head experiencing her anxiety, but it just didn’t work for me as I didn’t know her as a character yet. Though the heavy-handed camera work proves effective later for the last act by pulling the viewer into point of view, it makes the first act feel stilted.
Overall, I liked MIDSOMMAR way more than I thought I would, finding it a powerful film with strong pacing, good writing, just the right conflict between the fantastic and the mundane, and a fresh take on old horror themes.