REVIEW: ‘Midsommar’ is a Grotesque Fairytale Fueled by Anxiety

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Midsommar

Some films are beautiful. Some films are grotesque. And some film’s are made by Ari Aster and bridge the two like sunflowers growing from a corpse. In his sophomore feature film Midosmmar, Aster blurs the line between whimsy and horrific in brightly colored violence and beauty as we watch a group of Americans go deeper into a Swedish commune during its midsummer festival.

Dani (Florence Pugh), Midsommar’s protagonist, serves as a proxy for the audience. Having suffered a great and terrible tragedy, she’s riddled with guilt, fear, and ultimately a deep sense of dependency that keeps her following a boyfriend who is reluctant to be with her. Dani is anxious, apologetic, and incapable of choosing herself in any situation. Although she tries to push her boyfriend on his secrecy and mistakes, she backs down every time assuming the blame – too afraid of losing him to fight. Dani does what she can too to keep him by her side while Christian (Jack Reynor) chooses to stay because he just can’t leave.

This inability of the two to separate from each other – even if they may want to – leads Christian to ask Dani to accompany him and his grad school friends on a trip to Sweden. Unlike other horror films, that seek out a foreign destination with no purpose, the group is asked to come home with one of their friends, a Swedish student named Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to have a summer getaway, while also helping Josh (William Jackson Harper) gather ethnographic evidence for his thesis on European midsummer celebrations. Like every horror film group of friends has a fool of the group, Mark (Will Poulter), and with the group dynamic established, Dani as the odd one out as we follow them to a midsummer festival housed in a paradisiacal commune.

Once there, the once in a lifetime event ebbs and flows between beautiful and nightmarish, as the locals begin revealing their agenda which puts community first and the newcomers last as the festivities become more and more extravagant, grotesque, exciting, and terrifying.

Midsommar

With a bright setting, Aster wants you to see everything. Instead of relying on shadows and the unknown to build tension, he lays almost everything out for you and uses Dani to showcase the building fear. Since death touched her life, Dani suffers from frequent panic attacks. Throughout the film, these paralyzing moments are used, instead of a tense score, to build and chip away at your comfort. Dani is scared and you should be too. This happens on the plane, while on a bad trip outside the commune, during one of the most jarring ceremonies of sacrifice, and as the sinister objectives of the community begins to show itself.

The largest reason that they are successful is because Dani’s breakdowns are familiar and authentic. The heavy breathing, the sounds of a scream trapped in her throat as she tries to stifle it in public, her words to herself trying to talk her down from a panicked edge, and the environmental triggers that set the attacks off are all things small pieces that pull together a recognizable picture for those of us who suffer from anxiety disorders. As violence is on the horizon, the camera cuts to Dani, the sound drops out, her breathing is all you hear, all you feel. Pugh carries the emotional weight of the film on her shoulders and succeeds. From beginning to end, Pugh’s ability to act and tap into real anxiety and panic is one of the highlights of Midsommar. 

While Aster also utilizes loud interrupting sounds during the film to show stark changes in moments and make you refocus, it’s these smaller sounds that wind up building a sustained dread that jerks you out of the false safety that the brightness and humor have lulled you into.

In the small theater Midsommar was screened in, the large sounds like a telephone ringing sharply or a folk song starting out of nowhere, and other jarring moments were tangible. You could feel the loud sounds from the speakers. But then, when you expected screams or the squishing of flesh or crushing of bone and body it was silent and hazy, guided mostly by Dani’s breathing. And somehow, the sounds your mind filled in with the visuals on the screen was much worse than if you heard the smashing skull plainly.

Midsommar

With all that said, Aster doesn’t only show his mastery over sound in Midsommar, he also puts on a visual spectacle that feels removed from the world we live in. The community feels set aside, sacred, and ancient. Its beauty is in the free-roaming animals, it’s green grass, and always blue sky. It’s a fairytale and like most of them before Disney animates them, it’s as violent and grotesque as it is beautiful.

While Midsommar finds itself as more a psychological thriller than the pure horror of Aster’s last film Hereditary, it uses body horror to cross the valley between idyllic and insane. Mutilation is key to Aster showcasing the brutality and artistry that lays under the surface. Yet, he balances this by using the anthropologists, Josh and Christian, to explain away some of the moments the group witnesses as a culture that would look at Americans and cast the same judgment. In many ways, the films original concept as a slasher is present, though Aster has pulled that trophy subgenre.

That being said, there is a moment where nothing can be explained away and the film starts a sharp descent into the perspective of the commune itself in the third act. Without going into too much detail, there is a blending of nature and bodily mutilation that is unnerving. Similar to the styles of body horror shown in the television Hannibal, the bodies of the dead are not simply forgotten, but instead blended with pieces of nature and showcased as art rather than hidden away like a sin.

Unfortunately, the use of splicing single stills of some of the more grizzly displays of injury into scenes felt played for shock rather than for narrative. While Aster avoided chasing shock in his first film, he seems to have given into the gore gods of the genre here. Some violence lasts a moment too long, and the close-ups seem more unnecessary than frightening. However, if gore and body horror are not something you can sit through, then this one you’ll need to miss as viewing it is necessary to understand the community beyond its brutality. While not every frame of injury is necessary, the vast majority of it is.

Midsommar

Not only does Aster showcase one of the brightest horror films I have ever seen, and a graphic one at that, he presents us with multiple moments of psychedelic trips. When the first one started, I was worried. Often, an acid trip or someone feeling the effects of mushrooms is overdone to the point that visuals become a blur and I become motion sick. But, not here. In Midsommar, Aster shows the audience that he has clearly done his research on mushrooms and presents one of the most accurate representations of a trip on screen.

Instead of distorting the entire world around Dani and in one Christian, he selectively highlights portions of the landscape and warps it. Instead of the entire world spinning, a tree is breathing, swirling at the pace of Dani’s breathing. In another scene, the world is cohesive, while objects on a table blur slightly then refocus only to blur again and a single flower in a crown pulsates. It is noticeable, disorienting to a point, and effective without being overpowering and distracting from the rest of the story progressing around it.

While Midsommar’s color palette and airy quality make it stand out against the rest of the genre, it still suffers from some of the pitfalls. Visually, Aster has presented us with a grotesque fairytale within a community that lives up to the descriptor of sickly sweet. But narratively, we fall into the same trappings of most horror films as moments are set up, only to be dropped by the characters in and go unmentioned. There is a focus on a building romantic tension between Dani and Pelle, but by the end of the film, it’s gone. Pelle’s art seems important, and yet, it’s not. The focus of the characters’ travel to Sweden is to experience a midsummer festival that happens only once every 90 years, but that is forgotten. The latter of these leads to gaps in understanding the people of the commune which even as they unravel yields more questions than answers.

Midsommar

In addition, the pacing itself is almost purposefully uneven. Aster continually lulls us into a false sense of security and ease. We aren’t scared of the people of Hålsingland because they are strange, because their traditions are shown from a humorous perspective by the Americans witnessing it. Specifically with Mark’s jokes at the expense of the community’s practices. To him, they walk weird and do odd things. Through his humor, we let our guard down, we giggle. But then, Midsommar snaps you back and you’re reminded of the nightmare of it of all, of the violence, of the tension and the internal panic until it’s gone again. Midsommar crashes over you like waves and for some, they may get pulled into the riptide. Some scenes drag on, while others I needed more from.

In the end, Midsommar is a film that goes exactly where you think it is heading yet still manages to surprise. We’ve seen the cult story done hundreds of times and Aster knows this. Through visuals and sound, Aster is able to guide us through the commune in a way that meets our expectation while also subverting it.

This isn’t a slasher that sees a final girl running away into the night or even one where the group of friends fights back. Instead, it’s a showcasing of a community, of a fairytale world that is never once seen as an enemy by our main group. It’s seen through their eyes as a place of wonder, and it remains that way. It stays a fairytale because the moment it loses its beauty, we lose those characters.

As for Dani, this community, in all of its violence, offers her a moment to choose herself. And at that moment, the deterioration of Dani and Christian’s relationship is front and center, as the toxicity between them becomes more and more palpable. Throughout the 140-minute run time, Dani is pushed to change. The panic attacks keep coming and with each one, she adjusts even more to the reality around her. As Pelle explains, she has never been held in her trauma, which contrasts the beginning of Midsommar, where Christian is shown sitting with her on the couch while she cries and screams in pain. The people of the commune accept her pain, she accepts it too. She moves forward through the panic instead of remaining trapped by it.

Midsommar is as much a fairytale as it is a nightmare. While it isn’t perfect, it’s an uncomfortable trip worth taking. The film causes you to cover your face, move in your seat, giggle, and ultimately question what you thought the happiest ending was for the story.

Rating: 8/10