Bad relationships can be fiendishly hardy things. They can hobble along well past their expiration date, animated by pernicious habit and sustained on guilt, anxiety, and cowardice. Everyone involved might know on some level that the relationship is dead, but they still insist on propping it up in the corner and wedging a drink into its stiffened hand, contributing to a morbid farce that’s more grotesque than comical. No one wants to be the bad actor in a breakup – even when responsibility for a relationship’s failure lies overwhelmingly with one party. In an era of one-click relationship-status changes, it’s paradoxically never seemed more difficult to just walk away from a romantic bond that’s shriveled on the vine – or curdled into poison.
Such is the case with Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), New England graduate students who are three-plus years into a relationship that is plainly running on fumes. Christian is ambivalent, negligent, and secretive, and seems to be on his way out the door. However, he’s decent enough – or, less charitably, so obsessed with his self-image as a Nice Guy – that he can’t bring himself to pull the trigger. His roommates – Mark (Will Poulter), Josh (William Jackson Harper), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) – just want him to put up or shut up, pointedly reminding him that they will be proverbially drowning in single Nordic beauties when they visit Pelle’s hometown in Sweden during the upcoming summer.
For her part, Dani simply wants a partner who we will be attentive and supportive, but she’s so fearful of being alone that she swallows her own needs in classically co-dependent fashion, forever apologizing to Christian for being so clingy. She’s also devoting a double-helping of emotional labor to her troubled sister, a clinically bipolar woman who drags the people around her into every clamorous drama-of-the-week. However, something about said sister’s latest, feverish email alarms Dani, even if she can’t quite put her finger on why. Predictably, Christian minimizes Dani’s concerns, condescendingly dismissing her knee-jerk indulgence of her sister’s latest performative crisis. Except: This time, it’s not performance. Something truly appalling has transpired at Dani’s childhood home, something that makes it virtually impossible for Christian to extricate himself from their failing relationship, effectively putting it on life support for another six months.
This is all conveyed with enviable economy before the opening credits of writer-director Ari Aster’s emotionally raw and garishly demented sophomore horror feature, Midsommar. In the wake of the nerve-searing terror of Aster’s masterful directorial debut, Hereditary – which this critic named the Best Horror Film of 2018 – expectations are almost ridiculously high for the filmmaker’s latest effort. Fortunately, Midsommar’s prelude establishes straight away that the viewer is once again headed for a vertigo-inducing plunge into creeping dread and scouring angst of the most delectable sort. Anchored by a powerhouse performance from Pugh – who finally bests her breakout in the black-hearted period drama Lady Macbeth (2016) – the opening scenes of Midsommar establish everything the audience needs to know about the nuances of Dani and Christian’s rotten dynamic. Not that there’s anything remarkable about it: Their relationship hell is, if anything, dispiritingly banal, a tug-of-war between anxious co-dependence and spineless detachment that’s limping in circles via sheer, dead-eyed inertia. It’s a tale as old as time, but no less excruciating to watch it unfold.
When Dani learns that Christian still intends to go to Sweden with his friends, it leads to a perverse game of passive-aggressive chicken. She is upset that he would leave her behind while she’s still in the midst of a traumatic tailspin, but she’s too meek to explicitly forbid him to go or to invite herself along. Meanwhile, Christian is hoping that distance will give their anemic relationship a window to finally expire, but his shame and misplaced compassion compel him to invite Dani once his plans are exposed. (He assumes she won’t accept, which she does.) And so Dani joins the Sweden trip, a fifth wheel in what was supposed to be two weeks of bro-tastic hedonism thinly disguised as anthropological research at Pelle’s remote, pagan village in Hälsingland, near the Baltic Sea.
There the American visitors act as curious observers – and occasional tentative participants – in the community’s nine-day midsummer festivities, an every-90-years ceremony, which a twinkle-eyed Pelle assures them will be an event to remember. The guests have barely arrived when cups of hallucinogenic mushroom tea are pushed into their hands, the psychotropic disorientation that follows only heightened by the long daylight hours of the sub-Arctic midsummer. Pelle’s village certainly seems idyllic enough: a properly neat-and-tidy Scandinavian Arcadia, where all the residents are decked out in white garments and flower crowns for the festival. Not everything is enjoyable for Dani, however. For one, there’s the slender, red-headed Maja (Isabelle Grill), who almost immediately begins competing for Christian’s wandering eye. More worryingly, Dani’s still-fresh psychological scars start to become muddled with disturbing, seemingly prophetic hallucinations that are likely drug-induced … or perhaps not.
Filmgoers who have seen The Wicker Man (1973) may have some notion of where this is all headed, and there are indeed several similarities between director Robin Hardy’s low-key British horror masterwork and Aster’s film. Both features concern an isolated pagan community whose veneer of cheery Earth Mother wholesomeness conceals sinister intentions for their non-believer guests. Both are “daylight horror” tales that juxtapose their sunny, bucolic setting with a free-floating, primeval dread. In Aster’s case, he and returning Hereditary cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski crank the feature’s brightness up to overexposed levels, blanketing the film’s visuals in the pastel colors and soft focus of a vintage postcard (or the Instagram approximation of the same).
There the similarities largely end, however. The viewer learns little of The Wicker Man’s interloper protagonist, Sgt. Neil Howie, beyond the fact that he’s a bigoted prude who seethes at the very notion of a heathen faith surviving in modern-day Britain. Midsommar, meanwhile, places Dani front and center, shaping the film’s story and mood around her subjective state of mind (and Christian’s, to a lesser degree). In fact, Aster’s film can be regarded as a horror story about a pagan cult only in the parenthetical sense. Midsommar is a Breakup Film, full stop, albeit one that requires its heroine to travel thousands of miles into the clutches of vicious fanatics to realize that, hey, He’s Just Not That Into You. Or, as Dan Savage would put it, it’s time to DTMFA.
Between Hereditary and Midsommar, it’s now apparent that the art-horror mode in which Aster operates simply isn’t a sniffy affectation or a defensive attempt to burnish occult schlock for an audience who wouldn’t know Dr. Phibes from Freddy Krueger. The juicy B-movie elements of the genre – the séances and ritual magic and shocking gore – are a means to an end for Aster. Hereditary employed a demonic family curse to explore the way that parents damn their children with the one-two hex of nature and nurture. Now Midsommar finds the director using the markers of European folk-horror to critique the miserably human compulsion to cling to relationships out of fear and habit, even when they're self-evidently terrible for all parties involved.
Aster cunningly employs the midnight sun and pagan motifs to augment the story’s atmosphere of stagnation and circularity. One sun-dazzled marathon day of eating, drinking, singing, dancing, and tripping bleeds into another. Dani and Christian seem to have the same argument over and over: She wants to leave; he wants to stay. (“You just need to acclimate,” he soothes, patronizingly. “I don’t want to acclimate; I want to go!” is her response.) Despite the serene splendor of the green village vale, Aster and Pogorzelski’s hard, geometric compositions create a mounting sense of entrapment. Dani and her companions sleep in narrow beds in a cavernous longhouse where a baby always seems to be squalling during the too-brief nocturnal hours. Meals are held at enormous, rune-shaped tables, where everyone is crammed together, rubbing elbows awkwardly with their neighbors. A chain of dancers spirals round and round a flowered maypole, duty-bound to cavort until they drop from exhaustion.
Colin Stetson’s disquieting, avant-garde-tinged score for Hereditary is a hard act to follow, but electronic artist and producer Bobby Krlic – credited under his stage name The Haxan Cloak – hauntingly embellishes the standard-issue art-horror score of dense, ambient droning with traditional Nordic instruments and vocals. The result feels like a folk musician from some bygone century got a taste of Philip Glass and Atticus Ross and liked what they heard. The film’s otherworldliness is further enhanced by subtle psychedelic visual effects. Flowers petals seem to slowly expand and contract as though the blossoms were breathing. Shimmering grass appears to flow like water and creep like tongues of fire. Enormous, primordial visages lurk among the forest foliage, as though eldritch trolls were watching with hungry curiosity.
Unlike Hereditary, whose remorseless sour-gut terror was practically punishing in its intensity, Midsommar isn’t all that scary. It’s the sort of horror film that is content to be relentlessly unnerving rather than outright frightening. Still, it conjures a sustained, insistent itch that promises something nasty is going to happen to these characters and that they are powerless to stop it. Also, unlike Hereditary, Aster’s latest feature cuts its bristling dread and gruesome shocks with copious bone-dry humor. Indeed, Midsommar can be acutely and unexpectedly funny: a deadpan, quasi-cringe stripe of comedy that invites the viewer to goggle as the characters say and do profoundly stupid, selfish, and oblivious things. (Think Girls by way of Jim Jarmusch.) This can be observed even in the little details, such as the shot of Mark standing around vaping while the Swedes perform their quaint rituals. (Mark is the group’s designated asshole and stereotypical Ugly American, so of course he vapes. He also inadvertently takes a leak on the ashes of the village’s ancestors.)
This humor serves as a reliable release valve in a 140-minute film that can be downright languid in its approach to creating and sustaining anxiety. Aster deliberately stretches out scenes until their sheer inertness – and the furrowed, quizzical expressions on the characters that read, “Should something be happening now?” – begins to elicit guffaws from the audience. On more than one occasion, this is used to gently satirize the pathological tolerance of social-science academics like Christian and Josh, who put up with the locals’ cryptic silence (and far worse) in the name of remaining nonjudgmental about other cultures. This attitude is pushed to its limit relatively early in the festivities, when a pair of elderly villagers vividly demonstrates what it means to quickly and decisively end something rather than allow it to linger on in undignified misery. (It’s a lesson Dani and Christian could both take to heart vis-à-vis their relationship.)
Midsommar is a deceptively rich film, thematically speaking, more so than Hereditary. While it lacks much of the black pathos and blazing cruelty of Aster’s debut feature – and some of its focus as well; Midsommar doesn’t quite earn its puffy running time – the director’s latest film compensates for this with a more complex and conflicted worldview. One the one hand, Midsommar presents it pagan zealots as agents of ecstatic liberation, paralleling the way that Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015) ultimately portrays satanic pacts as preferable to stifling Puritanism (especially for women). For all its primordial carnage, Aster’s film is, in part, a celebration of found families. It depicts the revelatory elation of finally learning – well into adulthood – what it’s like to have unconditional support and validation in your corner. At one point, when Dani succumbs to an uncontrollable sobbing panic, an entourage of village women join her, mimicking her shrieks. It’s at once horribly unsettling and oddly moving, a ritualized act of feminine solidarity that insists: No one has to suffer alone.
On the other hand, Midsommer also contains an unambiguous streak of skepticism toward the twisted excesses of runaway piety, another trait it shares with The Wicker Man. It’s not incidental that, like Hardy’s feature, Aster's offers no obvious in-universe evidence for the existence of the supernatural. The film is most accurately characterized as captivity horror with occult trimmings, rather than occult horror per se. “Cult horror” would be just as apt, however; not in the sense of a film with a cult following, but a film about the horrors of the cult mentality. It’s a category that could encompass features as diverse as Martyrs (2008), Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), Sound of My Voice (2011), The Sacrament (2013), and The Invitation (2016). Quite apart from the deceptive pastoral charm of their colorful quilts and flower garlands, the insidiousness of Hälsingland’s pagan fanatics rests on well-worn psychological trickery: convincing newcomers that only the cult can provide the sense of community and acceptance that they crave.
There’s a final wrinkle that further stains the euphoric release that comprises the film’s florid, bloody, ludicrous climax. Aster maintains a lingering suspicion that Pelle’s motives are more twisted than mere ritualized violence. With hindsight, it’s apparent that the Swede has been subtly driving a wedge between Christian and Dani for some time: encouraging the former’s fantasies of infidelity while also positioning himself as a sensitive, kind-hearted shoulder for the latter’s tears. Unlike the other men, Pelle offers his earnest condolences to Dani following her losses early in the film. Later, as the primal madness of the festival ramps up in earnest, he pleads with her to stay, dropping self-serving “Christian doesn’t deserve you” declarations along the way. Ultimately, the film hints that it was Pelle's ambition all along to get Dani to the festival in Hälsingland, since every midsummer needs a worthy May Queen. The final lesson of Midsommar might be less “beware of pagan death cults” than “beware of softboys.”