Welcome back to another Friday Nightmare Reviews, wherein I tell you how to take your mind off the heat by suggesting what movie to scare the shit out of yourself with. Or cry your face off with. Let’s hear it for summer movies of 2020!
Being totally honest, this summer has been a bit of a weird one, no? Between a global pandemic in the spring leading to a lot of tensions and uncertainty to a large show of civil unrest that has been overdue for a very long time, while I don’t agree that this is the end of the world, this year has definitely been one to ponder and I don’t blame anyone for feeling like it might be end times. At times like these, it might be tempting to curl up and watch something familiar and comforting. Something that reminds you of home. If that’s what you’re craving, that is definitely not going to be what you see here tonight because we’re covering Ari Aster’s follow up to his incredible debut. That’s right, the horror film that had the balls to make you afraid of the daylight, Midsommar.
This is a bit of a polarizing film, given that you either absolutely love it or you think it was too long and you didn’t enjoy waiting for the horror to set in. Then again, that can kind of sum up Aster’s films in a tidy package, considering that there was also a pretty decent divide in how people felt about his debut, Hereditary. I think this is important to factor in before getting your popcorn ready for a film like this because unlike certain slashers or some franchise where you can be guaranteed certain things (ie. bloody boobies, specific killer traits or a familiar setting), Ari Aster has made a comfortable home for himself in the world of what people are calling “elevated horror”. It should be noted that this is a very very much maligned title by most horror fans as it is a way for certain stuffy types to allow themselves to begrudgingly agree that films in this genre can be good but still letting them separate themselves from having to associate with it. Sure they could write off the way that Nancy is a badass female protagonist who didn’t need to become something more than who she is to defeat a dream demon but that movie featured a slasher who kills you in your dreams so they can ignore it. It’s soooo much different when Dani in our film this week is put in a situation wherein she doesn’t have to become something more than who she is to become a kind of monster in her own right… okay so it’s not quite the same but I’m getting ahead of myself. The thing is, before we dive in, it’s been noted that this film isn’t for everyone and if cerebral horror where you have to pay attention to the minute details is not your thing, you might want to prep the back up film for your viewing pleasure while that popcorn is still popping. That said, there’s lots to talk about with this film and there’s a reason that it’s already developed a kind of cult following. If you want to know why the previous line was both appropriate and a horrible sub Dad level joke, join me as I dive into the movie Midsommar.
On its face, this story is pretty simple. A young woman named Dani, played by Florence Pugh, is in a relationship with an inattentive and less than stellar young man named Christian, who is played by Jack Reynor. Both of them are struggling with the strain of being together with Dani wanting to stay and Christian very much dithering on getting out. Unfortunately for both of them, Dani is struck by a horrific family tragedy and plunged into a visceral and overwhelming cloud of grief. She clings to Christian as a means to get some comfort wherever she can and finds out, rather randomly and callously, that he’d been planning on attending a midsummer festival in Sweden with his friends. Two weeks from when she’s first told. Either out of cowardice of not wanting to be the bad guy or enough votes on Reddit to prove that he was indeed the asshole, Christian invites Dani to tag along. His friend Josh couldn’t care less, as he’s engrossed in his thesis for his graduate studies, and his other friend Mark is somewhat pissed, as he’d been gunning for Christian to break up with her so he could enjoy the feminine spoils of visiting another country. Just in case you were wondering if you were supposed to like these guys. About the only person who is even somewhat nice to Dani is the foreign exchange student Pelle. It turns out that the festival is taking place in the commune where he grew up called the Harga. It also happens to be like a four hour drive outside of Stockholm, so nothing could go wrong with that, right?
Arriving on Dani’s birthday, the group is greeted by Pelle’s brother (maybe?) Ingemar, who’d been in England and brought friends from London. Sitting in the bright, sunny fields, the group decides that this is the perfect time to start taking a detour through bat country, so they all partake of some magic mushrooms. If a lot of drug use is not quite your things, there’s quite a bit of it in this film so brace yourself. After a bit of a bad trip and a lot of hinting of the grief that is barely hidden under her attempt to stay calm, the group finally arrives at the commune and are warmly received by the Harga. The commune seems to be full of kind, empathetic people who are devoted to their family, as they call themselves, but if you’re noticing a bit of a lot of creepiness going on, you would be right on the money. It doesn’t take long for the bodies to start disappearing and things to get weird. And yes, that’s a bear. It’ll be important later.
As I said off the top, there is a lot to talk about with this film. For one, the first thing that people note before they even turn it on is the length. This film is just shy of two and a half hours long and that’s just the theatrical release. As time of writing, there is a director’s cut that adds nearly another half hour to the run time. In other words, this is definitely going to be the kind of film where you take your bathroom break before the movie starts and maybe you’re going to want to hold off on drinking anything at all during. That said, you might also want to hold off on eating anything either because while the film is exceptionally long, especially for a horror film or even just a modern one, there is a pretty decent reason for the length. Just like with his previous film, Aster absolutely crams this movie full of symbolism and clues as to what’s going on in the background from the very beginning. At the risk of sounding like I’m telling you to avoid it, I will admit right away that this is not a film to be crunching popcorn with or just to stick on to turn off your brain. I would actually venture to say that those who didn’t like it might have been looking for that kind of film and probably didn’t really enjoy it because there’s a lot to pay attention to. It’s definitely not something you can sit back and relax while watching because missing those details, even little ones sometimes, is like getting the diet version of the story. You still understand where things are heading and you know what’s going on but the subtext and the overwhelming dread of the whole picture is kind of missing.
All this said, I don’t think that it’s fair to give the impression that this film is too much work to enjoy. If you like these kinds of movies, you will get a lot out of Midsommar for certain. If not or you aren’t sure if you want to partake, your milage may vary but I think this also accounts for the polarity of people who love it versus people who loathe it. Unlike the previous film, Hereditary, I would say this is actually a lot easier for audiences to pick up what Aster is doing and follow accordingly. It’s not really a surprise when the group gets to the commune and discovers that something is wrong with the Harga. It’s coded in how overtly friendly and welcoming they all are. There’s also a lot of telegraphing in the film through things like tapestries and images that you see but have no context for yet or repeated motifs that you can sense are going to be important. It does mean that you get the tip off well before the big reveal that this is indeed a cult and these clueless American college students are trapped but it also means that you don’t see the ending coming out of nowhere, as was the case for some with Hereditary. That said, what some people don’t get from this film is that sense of dread or the underlying haunting feeling of watching it and getting what Aster is really talking about.
So much of this film is about grief and it’s represented through the ability to breathe. This is made stunningly and horrifically clear in the opening of the film, which I will not spoil, as so much of the movie hinges on the power of this scene. So many people have praised Florence Pugh’s performance and it’s obvious why when you see how much of the film she has to carry. This whole movie is about Dani faltering under the weight of her loss, seemingly unable to breathe properly as she struggles to keep from being emotional. She’s trying desperately to project that she’s fine and everything is normal while still being utterly broken inside to the point where she has to fight to keep her composure when people try to comfort her. Their empathy comes across like a reminder of her loss and the pain she feels in those moments is something she is determined but failing to hold in. This all gets a lot more difficult for her when surrounded by the Harga and their wildly, almost animalistic, displays of empathy and their emphasis on family. Aster shows us the weight of her burden in how hard it is for her to hold her breath when all she wants to do is scream and cry and mourn.
And this brings us to one of the most important secondary characters, her terrible boyfriend Christian. Simply put, the guy is an asshole. Christian’s behavior is bad from the beginning, though what’s interesting about this character is how low key awful he is. Don’t get me wrong, he’s got some pretty intensely shitty moments too, like that whole keeping the trip to Sweden a secret from his traumatized girlfriend or later deciding that instead of developing his own graduate thesis, he’ll just copy what Josh is doing. This would have been shitty no matter what but what really makes him kind of heinous is all the little things that play on you later when you think about them. Things like being so wrapped up in your own trip that you forget your girlfriend’s birthday, even though you know she’s suffering through a rather overt trauma and could really use the support. Or things like letting said girlfriend wander off after witnessing a shocking and incredibly graphic death without even trying to talk to her or make sure she was okay. There are moments where they do give him a little bit of reprieve from his terrible behavior, but mostly his actions come off as half assed and makes the really bad things even worse. While it might just seem like they built this guy up to knock him down, again, I would argue the devil is in the details with this one and sets up for some of the more haunting implications of the film.
That haunting aspect is actually probably my favorite part of the film and why I am still giving it a recommend, even if you think you might not like it. There’s so much for you to unpack with all the characters, even people like Mark or Christian, who are coded as being dickheads from the first scene you see them in. One of my favorite characters is Pelle, who functions as the most insidiously kind person you’ll ever meet. This is exactly my kind of horror tea because he’s someone you shouldn’t want to like, but you kind of can’t help yourself because he is so inherently likeable. Even early on when you know that he’s connected to something much bigger, you see the way he treats Dani and his kindness just seems to highlight how much of an asshole her real boyfriend is. That’s the truly sinister part of the whole thing. You can see exactly why Dani would be more willing to talk to someone who has taken a keen interest in taking care of her, not for sexual favors or anything like that, but for seemingly wholesome, kind reasons. That just happen to be hiding an awful lot of death and some truly malicious manipulation in the background. This is part of why you have to pay attention to what they say and the imagery around them. Pelle and the rest of the Harga are being entirely honest and entirely dishonest the whole time they are there and the people who’ve come to the commune, you realize were never really going to leave anyway because one way or the other, they were coming to be part of the family. You would get that no matter what your viewing experience but the details in the film have some incredibly dark implications and if you catch them, this film becomes a lot richer and all the more disturbing for it.
And finally, we can’t talk about this movie without chatting about the most obvious taboo that it breaks: daylight. The only darkness you really see in the film is when the characters are still in America but once they get to Sweden, it’s all sunshine baby! There were a lot of people commenting on the fact that this is one of the only films to have most of the horror shot entirely during the day, as during the nine day festival, there is no night time. There are basically no scenes in the dark save for the very beginning and the rest of the film is bathed in glorious sunshine and color. Aside from letting you see the gore effects in all their bloody brilliance, this setting also allows the audience to get that kind of confused sense that the characters have. It’s hard to tell how long they’ve been there and there’s a kind of dreamy feeling to it all, like nothing is real anyway. It certainly doesn’t help the characters that they are almost always tripping balls through the whole visit but it also gives everything a kind of dazed feeling that gives the movie a bit of an edge. In some ways, it almost makes the deaths that you see at the commune feel less real than the ones you see at the beginning. They’re bloody and horrific but the kills done by the Harga are that much more disturbing because those sunny summer days feel like they should be showing us a happy ending. It certainly doesn’t help that everyone in the cult insists on continuing to show the kind of sweetness and warmth throughout the whole thing. I love that it unnerves you and gives the whole movie a kind of summery glow that seems like it should feel better than it does, much like the Harga cult.
Ultimately, as I said, your mileage may vary with this film but I think that most people should watch it once. If you are on the squeamish side, be forewarned that there are some decent gore scenes and some of them are a bit on the graphic side. That said, I’ve heard from other people who are pretty gore sensitive who love the film. If in doubt, don’t pull the same move as the characters in the film and go with your gut. And while I am a little sad that my pairings this time are going to be a bit on the lite side, I will say that this film doesn’t lend itself very well to snacking while watching. For one, you’ll miss stuff over the crunching and later on towards the end, there might be a few things you don’t want to be eating while watching. Just a little heads up. And as we said, if you’re sitting through the theatrical or the director’s cut, peeing is going to be an issue if you’re drinking and the dazed, somewhat nightmarishly weird atmosphere isn’t entirely the best movie to be tying one on to unless you’re planning on making your evening a lot more spicy than you intended. Perhaps for this one, your pairing would be to get your best flower crown and sit pretty for a while. And enjoy the ride because it’s a weird one!
And that has been my review of Midsommar! I thank you all for joining me for this little outing and for being as patient as you have been in the time between. I needed some time off for a while for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I’ve been extremely busy with things coming up. First and foremost is that I am putting out a new book! Coming soon, likely the beginning of next year but I don’t have a clear date just yet. I’m in the process of getting the formatting and the cover worked out and I’ll be able to give you more details as soon as I get them but it will be a sequel to my first novel Downtown, which you can find HERE. And in between the mad editing sessions I’ve been pulling to get that project off the ground, I’ve also been working on something that is making it’s grand debut next month! I will have a separate post for that on here coming up next week on Monday but Patrons will be getting it early. They have already heard some of it as well, so if that little clue is enticing to you, you can find out now by subscribing to the $2 tier of my Patreon. Otherwise, I will have big news for you all coming Monday the 20th.
Thank you to everyone who has joined me and I look forward to having you all over again for another Friday Nightmare Review. Until then, keep breathing, don’t drink the mushroom tea and here’s wishing you dreams full of only the nicest flowers to pick for your crowns.