Mainstream horror movies have long abided by a set of unofficial rules which govern what characters deserve to die, and when — “Don’t have sex” probably being the biggest cliché among them. Midsommar works differently. A film about a group of American grad students on vacation in rural Sweden, it ties survival directly to being a gracious visitor in another culture. Characters are condemned to horrid fates when they harshly judge a tradition they don’t understand, or when they disrespect a sacred site, or when they break the local rules of conduct. In this version of folk horror, the ancient and unsettling (and of course, ultimately murderous) rituals hold potential transformative value for an outsider, but only as long as they’re willing to give themselves over to it.
Here, that transformation is offered to main character Dani (Florence Pugh), who’s reeling in the wake of the horrifying murder-suicide of her sister and parents. Not helping things at all is her longtime boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), who offers her about as much emotional support as a storefront dummy. He’s long wanted out of the relationship but is too cowardly to dump her, to the point where he plans the Sweden trip with his friends without telling her about it, and ultimately “solves” this problem by inviting her along at the last minute. Dani’s psychological tailspin dovetails with the increasingly creepy practices of the midsummer celebrations at the remote commune they’ve come to. There are elders walking off cliffs, pubic hair in meat pies, an inbred “prophet,” and flowers stuffed into places flowers should not go. And worst of all, the villagers are just so serene, friendly, and disrespectful of personal space throughout.
Each member of the main group is a different flavor of ugly American abroad. Mark (Will Poulter) only wants to get laid. Josh (William Jackson Harper) is there doing thesis research, condescendingly viewing the locals as anthropological specimens. Christian was planning this as a Dani-free trip, and is at a loss for what to do besides gawk and ineptly try to care for her with her present. Every horror movie has to come up with some justification for the characters to not recognize what’s going on until it’s too late, and hilariously, here it’s their self-absorption and cultural illiteracy. Meanwhile, Dani’s emotional numbness precludes her from making any such missteps and actually facilitates her opening up to the spirit of the midsummer festivities. Beneath the odd songs and dances (and murder) is a message of total renewal — exactly what she needs. Midsommar can be seen as a dark parody of stories about Americans “finding themselves” in other countries. Eat (human flesh), Pray (to the harvest god), Love (anyone but that asshole).
Adding to that feeling is the cinematography, which frequently conveys the framing and overlit aesthetic of an Instagram video. In one scene, a host of female characters wear flower crowns, and the colors pop as if the shot has had the Lark filter used on it. Similarly, the vacay mainstay of a “food shot” is twisted by close-ups of questionable meat with flies buzzing about. And of course, many of the foreigners are themselves taking pictures on their phones the whole time. The idea of foreign adventurism is built into the look of the film. That it turns the Americans’s othering of the locals against them weighs it with even more ironic weight.
Indeed, this is one of the most intentionally funny horror movies in many years. A similar vein ran through Hereditary, director Ari Aster’s debut feature from last year, but here he indulges it wholeheartedly. It embraces the simultaneous absurdity and grossness of old-world traditions (feeding a pubic hair to an unsuspecting victim comes from actual folk tales). The movie also mines a lot of laughs out of the characters sheer witlessness, or from how baldly Christian’s bad behavior escalates.
That sense of humor doesn’t erase the growing unease throughout, though. Another thing Aster loves is closing in on impressively realistic gore makeup, often forcefully blasting such shots right when you’re least prepared for them. Beneath the sunniness of the endless Swedish summer day is a growing rot. More than jump scares or general dread, Aster’s films can be aggressively feel-bad. The way Dani’s sister kills their parents and herself is so awful and elaborate as to be baroque. But the audience squirms more here under unrelenting interpersonal unpleasantness than any violence, with some harrowingly realistic depictions of gaslighting. When Dani tries to confront Christian over his hiding the trip from her, she ends up apologizing to him.
Stretching out to two and a half hours, Midsommar can be needlessly self-indulgent at times. Horror especially can suffer under such stretching, and the finale doesn’t land as powerfully as it could have. But much of the film is keenly attuned to human failure and the ugliness of bad relationships, making for a magnetic but continually cringe-inducing ride.
Midsommar is now in theaters.