Midsommar ★★★★

If someone asked me to describe Midsommar using only a few words, I’d respond by stating that it deals with “the fear of the known.” I’m referring to the dead-end relationships that the characters find themselves in; a personal nightmare that they are either unable or unwilling to remove themselves from. Even though they know that postponing the inevitable only delays the suffering. Regarding the broader nightmare that all the characters face, I’m referring to the ways in which we are willing to dive head first into a world brimming with unease in order to gain a respite from our daily existence. Ari Aster does all of this while deftly blurring the lines between horror, comedy, and drama. The film firmly establishes itself as a horror film by the end, and as the final credits rolled I felt just as powerless, yet at ease with the conclusion, as Dani seems to be. 

There’s no timetable for grief. And rightfully so, especially when your consider all that Dani (Florence Pugh) has been through. Arriving in Sweden may offer her some sort of relief, but it seems impossible early on in the film, even when factoring in the sunny weather, the friendly nature of the Harga, and the distance (proximity-wise) from the tragedy that has led her here. Nevertheless, a last minute invite by her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), whose fickle nature and halfhearted attempts to help her grieve reek of a disingenuous character, has set her on this journey and Aster uses their fragile relationship to explore the grieving process that he himself went through prior the films production. 

Looking back on certain failed relationships or adventures, some will often reflect and say that “the writing was on the wall.” But, regrettably for Dani and the others, that is literally the case here. This includes the fates of their friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter), who have also taken part in this journey in order to get in some r&r while also developing their graduate thesis’. The fear of the known presents itself early on through the films set design, and the structures that the Harga have erected, whether they be for communal living, group worship, etc. all contain visual references that are stunning in their imagery yet foreboding when you consider what’s to come. That the films characters are either unwilling or unable to interpret their meaning is what generates the most tension in a film that is pretty much devoid of the jump scares that are a hallmark of the horror genre. That understandable, given that 90% of the film takes place in broad daylight. Rather than shock you using the tried and true methods, Aster prefers to weigh you down with the realization that the characters ignorance and hubris will ultimately lead to their demise. 

The ignorance that I’m referring to is on full display during the course of the film. For the record, I don’t think that any of these characters stood a chance in the long run, but they certainly hastened their demise through their foolish actions and breaches of etiquette, which easily helped them live up to the stereotype of the arrogant American tourist. As the film examines the two key relationships central to its narrative: that of Dani and Christian, and the rapport between the Harga and its guests, patterns emerge that demonstrate the slow erosion of the entire affair. The individual actions of Josh (who refuses to accept “No” for an answer when his request to document the runic rituals is repeatedly denied), Mark (who desecrates an ancestral tree and flippantly dismisses the aggrieved), and Christian (who is determined to use the rituals of the Harga as the basis for his thesis, much to the chagrin of Josh), demonstrate the minute ways in which all of the relationships in the film are destroyed through petty, selfish acts. 

As it relates to Dani and Christian, the support system needed to undergird her as she grieves is non-existent until the Harga arrive. As viewers we grieve for her and hope that she finds her way out of the darkness, even if it means she becomes prey for the predatory cult. Her powerlessness is a liability at first, but to watch as she is built back up by the Harga is a thing of beauty. They work their magic so effortlessly. Once viewed as the weaker party within the romantic relationship, her feelings of helplessness are slowly absorbed by Christian as the gaslighting process that he inflicted upon her is returned to him tenfold. It was a reversal of fortune that I (and possibly many others) delighted in.

By the films end, the fear of the known has fully materialized through the crowning of the May queen and the destruction of the group as we know it. It’s a fitting end to a film that forecasts its ending throughout most of the journey, yet still manages to leave one astounded at the end. Aster capitalized on his then unknown status to jolt us right out of our seats during Hereditary, a film that contains a twist that is as impressive as anything I’ve seen in recent years. But with the element of surprise now gone (and moviegoers anticipating such twists), where does one go from here? Out in the open, of course. Aster has made the daylight seem so frightening that you once again wish for the the one thing that would seem to be the antithesis of peace and tranquility: darkness.

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