Magazine | August 12, 2019, Issue

Midsommar Casts a Transfixing Scandinavian Spell

Florence Pugh in Midsommar (A24)

Here is a case against Midsommar, a deliberate, artful horror trip from the young director Ari Aster. The movie’s pagan-commune plot is clearly derivative of the horror classic The Wicker Man — the brilliant 1973 version, not the atrocious Nicolas Cage remake. The movie develops in a resolutely unsurprising way: What appears to be going on is what is going on, without any twist or complication. The major characters, who fail to realize the obvious, are necessarily thinly drawn, performing types without discovering a real psychology. Aster obviously loves his curated set-pieces, his gorgeously shot gore, more than he cares about elevating his script beyond the wooden or the stilted usual of horror.

I am offering this case at the outset because I’ve encountered it in variations from other reviewers since I saw the movie, and I recognize the truth in the critiques. At the same time, I found Midsommar utterly transfixing, darkly comic, ravishing, and appropriately terrifying; despite a two-hour-and-20-minute running time, I was never inclined to wish that it were shorter, happy to put myself under the same strange Scandinavian spell as the one that seals the major characters to their fate.

The most important of those characters are two Americans in a bad relationship. Dani (Florence Pugh) is the needy, isolated one, afraid that she’s driving her boyfriend off with all her family drama; Christian (Jack Reynor) is the somewhat jerkish one who’s sticking with the relationship out of inertia, even as he spends his free time wargaming break-ups with his frustrated grad-student bros. He’s poised to finally do it, maybe, when the family drama in Dani’s life turns horrific, taking her nearest kin out of the picture entirely. At which point Christian doesn’t just stick by her; he invites her, thinking she’ll say no, to join him and the bros and a few other outsiders on a summer trip to a Swedish commune where their pal Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) grew up.

She says yes, and so they carry their doomed-relationship baggage across the Atlantic to the sun-drenched north of Scandinavia, where the solstice looms and true night never falls. The commune is pristine, gorgeous, verdant — girls in white dresses and men with white beards and huge barns for sleeping in, painted with large-faced characters enacting pagan scenes. There are hallucinogenic drugs and wholesome dancing, hearty farm fare and a bright yellow temple that nobody’s allowed to enter, a lot of Nordic politeness and super-friendliness and some funny moments, as when Pelle is explaining the seasons-of-life social order in the commune and says it just ends at the age of 72, and one of the Americans asks what happens after you turn 72, and Pelle grins and makes a throat-slitting motion, ha ha ha what a kidder . . .

Fundamentally this is what you’ll either like or dislike about the movie: The inhabitants of the commune don’t really make any effort to hide what’s happening from their cultural-tourist guests. The truth of the “jokes” is apparent soon enough, the crucial rituals are all there in gorgeous painterly color on the barn’s interior, and when people start disappearing, the excuses offered for their absence are comically thin. (One girl is told that her boyfriend was driven to the train station without her, and when she objects that he wouldn’t have left her there, the communard explains placidly that their truck is a two-seater, and she couldn’t have sat on his lap because, after all, “we don’t break traffic laws.”) 

This effect is heightened by the constant sunlight; there is one ambush in the half-dusk but nearly everything takes place in the broadest daylight, leaving no excuse for ignorance among the growing group of victims. The absence of darkness and jump-scares also changes the audience’s experience; what we fear in Midsommar is the all-but-inevitable, the already known, the essentially inescapable, not the terror lurking in the shadows. The typical horror-movie climax takes place sometime around midnight, or in Buffalo Bill’s basement, or in the darkest part of the haunted house. But the climactic sequence of Midsommar features one of the last surviving Americans running stark naked across the noonday greensward with nobody obviously chasing him. It’s frightening in a different way, maybe a deeper one — or maybe I just like this style of horror because I don’t like being made to jump.

The given reason that most of the characters remain even as the dire end becomes apparent is also one that appeals to my own biases. The doomed American dudebros, Christian included, are anthropology Ph.D.s in search of dissertation material, and Midsommar functions as a kind of anti-grad-student polemic, casting a cold eye on the would-be academic mind and suggesting that Aquinas was right to deem curiosity a potential vice — especially a curiosity that requires suspending moral judgment in order to go as far as possible along what turns out to be a bloody, fatal path.

Unfortunately for the film, Raynor, while plausible enough as a mediocre boyfriend, lacks both the acting chops and the dialogue that would bring the movie’s portrait of the grad student as a doomed idiot to perfection. Pugh’s performance as Dani, though, is closer to perfection: She stays not for the sake of intellectual curiosity but because she senses, deep in her codependent soul, that this pagan cult might make a better soulmate than her clueless American boyfriend. And her face at the climax, the play of emotions as the plot machinery reaches its inevitable terminus, rivals the Satanists’ glorying at the infernal infant at the end of Rosemary’s Baby as the most sinister possible expression of delight.

This article appears as “Sun-Drenched Horror” in the August 12, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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