Saturday, July 27, 2019

It Came From The Cineplex: Midsommar

Midsommar was written and directed by Ari Aster. 

Aster previously wrote & directed Hereditary.

It's hard to believe that Midsommar is only Aster's second theatrical film! If I didn't know better, I'd say it's the work of a highly experienced filmmaker with a dozen movies under his belt. He's an amazingly competent talent.

Like Aster's previous film, Midsommar is more unsettling and disturbing than it is scary. In a way that's actually worse. A horror film's frights are quickly forgotten, often by the time you get back from the cineplex. Movies like this stick with you for much longer, as they get under your skin and stay with you for days.

If I had to come up with one complaint about Midsommar, it's that it's a little... predictable. When I watched Hereditary, I literally had no idea where its plot was going. It managed to surprise me at every turn (well, until it fell apart late in the third act). 

Sadly, Midsommar follows the "Outsiders Encounter Creepy Cult" template pretty much to the letter. It features the same basic plot as Witchfinder General, The Blood On Satan's Claw and of course the grandaddy of all evil cult films, The Wicker Man (the original 1973 one, not the Nicolas Cage abomination). There are few if any surprises, as the story unfolds exactly as you expect it to.

That said, it's not completely without merit. It features some wonderful cinematography and amazing performances, especially by Florence Pugh as main character Dani Ardor. She does a great job portraying a young woman who's losing the last vestiges of her old self as she slowly goes insane.

So far the film's grossed a paltry $28 million (worldwide!) against its minuscule $10 million budget. Whoever thought it'd be a good idea to release it in the middle of the crowded summer blockbuster season needs fired, stat. This is most definitely a February or October movie, and would have done much better during those periods. On the other hand, Hereditary was released in June as well, and managed to rack up $79 million, so what do I know?


The Plot:
Dani Ardor (played by Florence Pugh) is a nervous, emotionally needy college student who's dating Christian Hughes (played by Jack Reynor). Christian's exhausted by the constant drama in Dani's life, and wants to break up with her. His pals Mark (played by Will Poulter), Josh and Pelle urge him to do so. Pelle's from Sweden and invites the guys to come visit his hometown, assuring them they'll meet lots of beautiful women there.

Just as Christian's about to give Dani the heave-ho, she calls him in hysterics. Her bipolar sister killed her parents and herself, leaving Dani alone in the world. Christian then feels obligated to stay with her, mechanically comforting her as she sobs uncontrollably.

Sometime later Dani finds out about the trip to Sweden, and wonders why Christian didn't tell her about it. He reluctantly invites her to come along, which angers Josh and Mark. Pelle's all for it though, telling Dani about his village of Harga and the upcoming Midsommar festival (Houston, we have a title!). He consoles Dani by saying he knows what she's going through, as his parents were killed in a fire when he was a child (Plot Point!).

Cut to the group arriving in Sweden. They drive for several hours, eventually arriving at the remote, tiny village Harga. There they meet Pelle's brother Ingemar, who's brought a young British couple named Simon and Connie to visit. Ingemar offers the group mushrooms, and everyone but Dani eats them and begins tripping. Dani's offered some herbal tea, which causes her to hallucinate. She freaks out and runs into the woods, where she passes out and has a nightmare about her parents

Dani wakes next to Christian, who says she was out for six hours. She says that's not possible, as the sun hasn't moved since she last saw it. Pelle offers a half-hearted explanation that this is normal in such a northern locale. Pelle then shows the group around the small village, explaining their various customs. He says they're lucky they arrived when they did, as the nine day Midsommar Festival only occurs once every ninety years.

Josh, who's writing his thesis on the Harga, spots a yellow triangular building at the edge of the village and asks what's inside. Pelle says "It's not for them," and shows everyone the communal building where they'll be staying. Pelle explains that their lives are divided into four "seasons." From birth to 18 they're considered children, from 18 to 36 they embark on a pilgrimage, 36 to 54 is the "summer" of their lives, and from 54 to 72 they're considered elders. Dani asks what happens after someone reaches age 72, and Pelle jokingly makes the "throat cutting" gesture (another Plot Point!).

Sometime later the group participates in the festivities, sitting in a circle as villagers dance around them. A young woman named Maja playfully kicks Christian and she dances by him, getting his attention. Dani looks on disapprovingly. Pelle asks if she's OK, and Dani admits that it's her birthday, and Christian forgot about it. Later Pelle brings her a piece of cake.

The next day Dani and the others join the villagers for a huge feast. Maja serves Christian a glass of tea, which is noticeably redder than everyone else's (implying she spiked it with her menstrual blood as a love potion!). Two elders, a male and female, are wheeled out to the table as guests of honor.

After the feast everyone gathers under a high cliff. The villagers begin chanting and breathing loudly, as Dani and the others wonder what's going on. Suddenly the two elders hobble to the edge of the cliff. The Elder Woman leaps off, landing on a boulder far below and smashing her face to a pulp. 

The outsiders are shocked and appalled. The Elder Man then jumps as well, but instead of dying instantly he shatters his legs. He moans in agony, and the villagers begin mimicking his cries. One of the villagers carries a massive sledgehammer over to the Elder Man, and smashes his skull flat.

Simon and Connie decide they've had enough and announce they're leaving. A villager named Siv explains to the outsiders that this is a time-honored Harga ritual. She says they feel it's better to end their lives at age 72 rather than grow old and infirm and become a burden on the community.

A visibly upset Dani runs back to her room. Pelle follows and tries to comfort her. She tells him to back off, fearing Christian might walk in. Pelle asks if Christian is really that important to her. Later that night Dani has nightmares about her late family.

The next morning Connie packs her bags and tells Dani she and Simon are leaving. She's furious when a villager tells her that Simon left earlier to buy train tickets, and said he'd send a car for her. She can't understand why he'd leave her alone, and heads out on foot to catch up with him. 

Meanwhile, Josh takes notes on the Harga customs for his thesis. Christian enters and says he's decided to do his thesis about the Harga as well. This angers Josh, who's been working on his project for months. Christian suggests they collaborate, but Josh tells him to get lost.

Inside the village temple, an Elder shows Josh one of their sacred texts. He says all of them were written by inbred villagers, who are considered seers. The most recent text was written by a horribly deformed villager named Ruben, who's the product of incest but is viewed as a seer. Josh asks if he can take photos of the text, but the Elder forbids it.

Elsewhere, Mark wanders around the village and pees on a fallen tree. A Harga named Ulf sees him and flies into a rage. He says for centuries they've buried the ashes of their Elders under the fallen tree. In effect, Mark just pissed on hundreds of years worth of Elders. Mark apologizes, but Ulf's so upset he breaks down in tears, and has to be comforted by the other villagers.

Christian sees Ruben, and asks a villager if incest is accepted in Harga. The villager says it's not frowned upon, but they preserve their gene pool by bringing in new blood from outside (yet another Plot Point!). Just then Christian hears a bloodcurdling scream in the distance, that sounds suspiciously Connie-like. The villagers go about their business as if they didn't hear anything.

A second feast is held, and Mark's uneasy when he sees Ulf glaring at him. Dani asks if anyone's seen Connie, and a Harga man says a villager drove her to the train station earlier that day. A beautiful young Harga girl then beckons to Mark, and leads him away from the feast.

Late that night, Josh sneaks into the temple, determined to snap some photos of the sacred text. He hears a noise and sees what appears to be Mark standing behind him. Suddenly he's clocked in the back of the head with a rock and collapses. Ulf, wearing Mark's face like a mask (!!!!), watches as Josh is dragged away.

The next morning, a villager tells Dani and Christian that their sacred text has been stolen, and Josh and Mark are missing. Christian says he doesn't know anything about it, but is willing to help look for the book.

Dani's invited to a competition, in which she and dozens of other girls will dance around a maypole. The last one standing will be crowned May Queen. Dani begins dancing with the others, who drop out one by one. Dani's given an herbal tea, and finds she can suddenly speak and understand Swedish. After hours of dancing, Dani's the last one left and is crowned May Queen.

Meanwhile, Christian meets with a female Elder who says it's been decided he'll mate with Maja. He's given more drugged tea and led into a building, where a dozen naked women stand around a nude Maja sprawled on the floor. He has sex with Maja, as the women watch and mimic her moans of pleasure.

Dani hears the moaning and marches to the building, where she sees Christian drilling Maja in front of an audience. She runs back to the communal building, where she has a mental breakdown. As she wails and rocks back and forth, the other women join her, until they're all in perfect sync with their new queen.

Meanwhile, Christian finishes up with Maja. He snaps out of his trance, and realizing what he's done, flees the building completely naked. While looking for a place to hide, he discovers Josh's leg sticking up out of a garden. He runs into a shed, where he sees Simon dangling from the ceiling, his still-functioning lungs hanging outside his body (a form of punishment called the "blood eagle"). A panicked Christian exits the shed and runs into a villager, who blows powder in his face. Once again he's drugged and knocked out.

The next day (I guess?), there's another ceremony. Dani sits in a place of honor on a stage, peering out of a massive cloak made of flowers. Several Elders sit on the stage as well. Christian, now completely paralyzed from the drug, is parked in a wheelchair at the foot of the stage.

An Elder announces that per their tradition, nine people must be sacrificed during the Midsommar festival. The nine must consist of two elders, four outsiders, two volunteers from the village, and one chosen by the May Queen. To no one's surprise, Dani picks Christian.

The villagers disembowel a live bear and place Christian
— who's unable to move or speak— inside its skin. They then set him on a pyre inside the yellow triangular building. They bring in the corpses of Josh, Mark, Simon and Connie as well. The two villager volunteers enter and sit beside the bodies, as the building's set on fire.

The volunteers scream in pain as they're consumed by flame. The other villagers moan and flail about in imitation of them. We slowly zoom in on Dani, as a terrifying smile spreads across her face. She's finally found a new home and family here, as she loses the last remnants of her sanity.

Midsommar had an extremely short production period, premiering barely a year after being filming began. In fact it was greenlit on May 18, 2018, just a month before Aster's previous film Hereditary was premiered on June 8, 2018.

• Ari Aster seems to have a thing for verbal tics. 

In Hereditary the strange & disturbed Charlie character had a habit of making a "tock" noise by clucking her tongue. In Midsommar many of the villagers make a ritualistic sound by rapidly and loudly inhaling and exhaling.

• Is Dani's last name (Ardor) meant as a joke? The word "ardor" means "enthusiasm or passion." That doesn't seem to describe her character, as she's more needy and obsessive than passionate. Maybe it's just a coincidence and doesn't signify  anything.

• Speaking of coincidences— there's a 2003 movie called Midsommar, complete with the same Swedish spelling (!). In it, the main character's named Christian (!!), and has a younger sister who kills herself (!!!). In order to get over the ordeal, his friends take him on a trip to Sweden (!!!!). The group ends up encountering a supernatural presence during a folk festival.

OK, so it's not exactly the same, but there are a suspicious amount of similarities. Did Ari Aster know about the earlier film? Is Midsommar 2019 a stealth remake? Did Aster swipe the idea from the 2003 movie? Or is the whole thing just an amazing coincidence?

• Apropos of nothing, two of the stars of Midsommar— Jack Reynor and Will Poulter— previously worked together in a film called Glassland. The movie also starred Toni Collette, who turned in a gut-wrenching performance in Aster's Hereditary

I was wracking my brain trying to figure out where I'd seen Reynor before. Turns out he starred in 2018's Kin.

• Aster gives the movie a disorienting quality, mostly through the use of night & day. When the outsiders first arrive, they're enjoying the beautiful noonday sun, and are surprised to learn it's 9pm. Pelle explains that's just the way things work at their particular latitude.

Later on though it's clearly nighttime when the characters are sleeping in their bunkhouse, and when Josh is sneaking into the temple. Why, it's almost as if it only gets dark in Harga when the script needs it to!

When the group first approaches the village, Aster ramps up the sense of disorientation by filming the scene upside down. It's a ridiculously simple idea, but it really does give the shot a confusing, off-kilter quality.

Midsommar features a ton of pretty blatant foreshadowing, much of it in the form of Swedish folk art. In fact the film begins with a panning shot of a tapestry whose imagery literally spells out the entire plot!

There's also a humorous look at a tapestry that shows women how to create a love potion by stirring their pubic hair clippings into a glass of tea (!). Shortly after we see this tapestry, Maja offers Christian a refreshing beverage, and after taking a drink of it he spits out a hair!

We also see a tapestry depicting the May Queen ritual.

Of course at the end of the movie we see the tapestry come to life, as Dani becomes the village's newest May Queen.

• The foreshadowing's not limited to just Swedish tapestries. In Dani's apartment we see a painting of a little girl taming a ferocious bear.

Later in the village, the outsiders walk past a live bear in a cage.

 Of course the bear's significance becomes apparent at the end, when its body's hollowed out and Christian's placed inside it as part of the sacrifice ritual.

• When they first arrive in Harga, Pelle tells Dani and the others that the Midsommar Festival happens once every ninety years. That's clearly not true though, as Dani finds a wall filled with dozens of photos of past May Queens. How could there be that many if they're only crowned once a century (give or take)?

There are a couple of ways to reconcile this seeming goof. Maybe the May Queen ceremony's an annual event, and is separate from the Midsommar Festival. Maybe Pelle's grasp of English isn't perfect, and he meant this is the 90th Festival. Or maybe he's just a big fat liar, who'd say anything to bring in fresh meat for the ritual.

• The trailer features a very quick shot of Reuben, a monstrously deformed inbred Harga villager. If you're expecting to play a major role in the film (as I was), you're in for a let-down. Reuben literally appears for a grand total of ten seconds in the movie. In fact I think there may be more shots of him in the trailer than in the actual film.

• Speaking of Reuben, the village elders consider him some sort of oracle or seer. The elders encourage him to write in the sacred texts, which they then study.

At one point we get a brief shot of one of Reuben's "writings," and it literally looks like a child's finger painting. An Elder explains to a quizzical Josh that Reuben's writings must be pored over and "interpreted."

Hey, Reuben's scribbles look like they make about as much sense as most religious texts!

• Shortly after the outsiders arrive in the village, Simon sees a group of kids singing and chanting. Pelle explains that they're playing a game called "Skin The Fool."

Later after Mark offends the villagers by peeing on their sacred tree, he's abducted and skinned alive. Ulf even wears Mark's face like a mask! At the end of the movie, the empty husk of Mark's body's placed in the yellow temple (with all the other sacrifices) and set on fire.

• Even though the Elders' deaths were heavily telegraphed well in advance, it was still shocking when they both leaped to their deaths as part of the Midsommar festivities.

By the way, if you ever decide to ritualistically end your life at age seventy two by leaping from a cliff, jump off head first. If you jump feet first like the male Elder, you're gonna have a bad time.

• After witnessing the suicides, Dani wants to leave Harga. Pelle tries to comfort her, saying he understands her pain over the loss of her family. He says his parents were killed in a fire when he was a child, so he knows what she's going through.

Based on the events at the end of the movie, it seems likely that Pelle's parents were burned alive in an earlier Festival.

• Dani & Christian are trapped in a remote, isolated village somewhere in Sweden, they've just witnessed a horrifying ritual suicide and several of their friends and acquaintances have gone missing. So it only makes sense for them to drink every strange herbal concoction offered to them by the weirdo villagers!

Midsommar features a nice bit of symmetry at the beginning and end of the film. Early in the movie, Dani learns that her sister killed herself and their parents. She wails mournfully as Christian halfheartedly holds her, barely interested enough to utter a halfhearted "There, there."

At the end of the film, Dani, who's now been crowned May Queen, sees Christian cheating on her with Maja. She runs to the dorm, where once again she wails mournfully. This time though, her loyal subjects are with her, and they emphasize totally with her. They match her cries until they're all in perfect sync.

This causes Dani to realize that the villagers are now her family, much more so than anyone in the real world ever was, and is the main reason why she loses her mind and becomes one of them.

Midsommar doesn't quite reach the heights of its predecessor, but it's still a reasonably well-made sophomore effort. What it lack in actual horror it more than makes up for in disturbing and unsettling imagery. Sadly, it's plot is highly predictable, as it's very similar to every "evil cult" movie ever made. Still worth a look though. I give it a B-.


  1. I haven't seen the film, but I suspect the reason they decided to release it in the middle of summer is ... because of it's title? Mid-summer? Who'd want to see a film titled that in October? It'd be like releasing a Christmas film in March.

  2. Fair point. I still think horror films tend to do better outside of summer blockbuster season though.


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