SPOILER ALERT- I’m not giving away the ending, but there are key elements to the plot that are revealed in this review. Watch the movie first if you don’t want some of the elements revealed before you see it. You have been warned!
Modern society tries to deny it, but we are steeped in superstition and traditions we don’t fully understand. Knock on wood. Don’t walk under a ladder. Black cats crossing your path. Holidays like Halloween, once strongly related to Druidic, Pagan and Celtic beliefs--now they’re an excuse to dress up in costumes and behave mischievously for one night a year. But all of these things come from some original source. All of them had to have some belief behind them that made them ‘stick’. Now imagine a world where some ancient traditions, though bizarre to most, have survived. Welcome to writer/director Ari Aster’s Midsommar.
Midsommar is the story of Dani (Florence Pugh) an American college student who’s in a failing relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor). The couple is drifting apart and it’s obvious to everyone, except maybe Dani, that they are soon to break-up. In fact, Christian plans to do it soon so he doesn’t have to deal with telling Dani he’s accepted his Swedish friend Pelle’s (Vilhelm Blomgren) invitation to travel to the young man’s home village in a remote part of Sweden for the summer.
Only before Christian can end things, tragedy strikes. Dani’s mentally unstable younger sister kills their parents and herself. This leaves Dani alone in the world and more vulnerable than ever. Christian does what he believes is best, and does not break-up with Dani. Instead, he ends up inviting her to join him and his friends on their summer trip to Sweden.
Christian tells his friends Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper) that he’s sure the timid young woman won’t accept the invitation. But she does. This creates an awkward dynamic for everyone, except for Pelle, who admits he’s pleased that Dani will be joining them and thinks it will do her wonders to visit his friends and family in their traditional little village.
Soon enough the five of them are in Sweden and they quickly learn just how remote Pelle’s home is. They drive for over four hours to get there and end up having to abandon their car because they must hike the last few miles to get there.
Upon arriving they are amazed by what they see. The village is preparing for their Midsommar Festival, a nine-day long ritual event that happens only once every 90 years. Another member of the village, Ulf (Henrik Norlen), has brought two other outsiders with him: Connie (Ellora Torchia) and Simone (Archie Madekwe). All are welcomed by the villagers with open arms and brought in on the festivities.
Dani, still suffering severe mental stresses from the loss of her family, and also finding little solace from her relationship with Christian, is particularly drawn into the community. Feeling more welcome and accepted by the villagers, she grows closer to Pelle even as Christian becomes more distant to her.
Josh, an anthropology Ph.D. student, wants to do his doctoral thesis on the villagers and their ‘pagan’ rituals. Christian, also apparently an anthropology Ph.D. student decides he wants to do the same thing. This creates a huge rift between the friends and serves to isolate the outsiders more from each other.
As each day of the festival passes, the group are exposed to ever more bizarre and unsettling rituals, including the ritual suicide of two of the village elders, Now the outsiders are split even further, Simone and Connie determined to leave, Josh bent on finding out all of the secrets the village has to offer, and the rest just confused, but not quite willing to leave. As the festival draws closer to its conclusion though, the outsiders find that there is a purpose to their presence and for them, it may already be too late.
Midsommar is a fascinating film that blends incredible cinematography and visual imagery with a twisting, complex story. The film is not so much a tale of a strange religious cult and their pagan rituals, but more a story of the journey of one character, Dani. How this young woman’s tragedy and vulnerability blend with the practices and beliefs of this strange Swedish cult is a study in character development. Florence Pugh is brilliant as the troubled college student brought into a strange world of ritual and ancient practice. Is she enthralled by real magic or just her imagination? It’s hard to say, but Pugh handles the complexities of the role masterfully.
Another aspect of Midsommar that cannot be overlooked is writer/director Aster’s use of imagery and foreshadowing to create a subtle, but ever-present tension that quietly builds in the film. The audience, much like the outsiders in the movie, isn’t immediately made to see the danger of the villagers’ beliefs and rituals. Instead, it is a slow, deliberate build-up that allows each successively bizarre and sometimes violent ritual to build on the previous one, acclimatizing the outsiders to the strangeness just enough to keep them from trying to escape as each day passes.
Midsommar is a haunting and beautifully made film. However, it has a dark and rough edge to it. Viewers are at times subjected to incredibly disturbing, and graphically violent imagery associated with ritual sacrifice and murder. Perhaps made even more horrific by the idyllic setting within which they occur. So if you watch Midsommar be aware--it is not only beautiful, but potentially disturbing.
Though the pacing may be slow for some, overall, it is that slow burn buildup of tension that is part of what makes Midsommar so effective. Though it will invariably be compared to the classic film The Wicker Man (1973, not the remake), Midsommar is not a remake or reimagining. It is its own film and is worth checking out by not just fans of horror, but fans of good cinema. Check it out.