Dani Ardor is a college student in a relationship with one Christian Hughes. He is an emotionally distant man – to the point where one of his friends, Mark, suggests they break up. However, one night, he receives a particularly disturbing call from Dani. Her bipolar sister has just committed a heinous murder-suicide, stealing the lives of their parents before taking her own. The next summer, Dani, while attending a party with Christian, learns that he and his three friends, Mark, Josh, and Pelle, have been invented to attend a midsummer celebration in Hälsingland, Sweden. Pelle hails from the country and the festivities take place once every ninety years at an ancestral commune known as the Hårga. Once Dani learns of their trip, Christian hesitantly invites her to join them.
As soon as the film begins, it is clear Dani’s relationship with Christian is not a healthy one. Christian clearly wants to break up with her, and his friends are waiting for the shoe to drop. Given the particularly tragic circumstances in which Dani finds herself, Christian is unwilling to come forward and admit his true feelings. You could conclude that he is at least trying to be tactful in handling the situation. However, when looking back on his unwillingness to sever ties with Dani, you get the sense that this was more for his sake than for his girlfriend’s. He spares Dani the pain of breaking up not because he wants to avoid damaging her psyche further, but because he doesn’t want to come across as a bad person to his friends.
As a director, one of Mr. Aster’s strengths is that he frequently opts to show in lieu of telling. The moment in which the murder-suicide is revealed is a particularly affecting moment. It begins with Dani sobbing loudly into the phone and when it cuts to her house, you see the corpses meticulously placed throughout the house as the emergency forces travel through it and take their notes. This sequence is shot similarly to the average scene in Hereditary, turning a mundane tragedy into something unnerving and otherworldly.
Although Mr. Aster’s directorial debut was highly praised, he did end up playing to basic human fears by having a majority of his most freighting scenes take place at night. As if to compensate, a majority of Midsommar takes place during the day. This is because the commune is situated far enough north that in the summer, the sun shines as late as 10:00 PM. This aspect has many profound impacts on the plot, as characters begin to lose any sense of time without a natural day-to-night cycle.
One facet I find myself complimenting is that Midsommar has a genuinely good, if dark sense of humor to it. This aspect by itself allows it to outshine Hereditary, which took itself far too seriously for its own good. Midsommar has the characters come up with surprisingly complex one-liners to complement the existential dialogue about life, death, and the passage of time. It’s particularly amusing watching these commune members, who resemble hippies in appearance, go on about their sacred traditions only to later invite the main characters to watch Austin Powers with them.
The most obvious common thread linking Midsommar and Hereditary is that both films get downright brutal when the situation calls for it. The travelers are left shocked when they watch two commune elders jump off of a cliff. The woman horribly mutilates herself beyond recognition while one of the man’s legs is broken off from his body. Incredibly, the latter survives, prompting his fellow members to crush his skull with a mallet. Later acts of violence, though not as overtly graphic, are every bit as impactful – particularly when the main characters are targeted.
Unfortunately, I have to comment that, like Hereditary, Midsommar falls short in a number of ways. The ways in which Mr. Aster experimented with Hereditary frequently involved trying to pass off flaws as strengths. While certain developments were indeed shocking, others just highlighted the narrative’s overall lack of internal consistency. I will say upfront that Midsommar doesn’t quite have this problem. When the snarkiest character in the film, Mark, inevitably dies, Mr. Aster does not relent with his dark humor. Moreover, because there are few, if any, supernatural elements present, the narrative doesn’t break its own rules nearly as often.
In fact, with Hereditary as a precedent, Midsommar, strangely enough, suffers from the exact opposite problem. When you take out the trademark A24 naval-gazing dialogue, the long, panning shots, and the elaborate set pieces, Midsommar is a fairly basic horror film. As its core, the film stars a group of largely unsympathetic people who get killed off one by one because when they foolishly incur the wrath of forces they don’t understand. While the film ends up being relentless to its cast, it’s a little difficult to empathize with most of them due to making highly insensitive – often sexist – comments that wouldn’t feel out of place in an Eli Roth feature. The only consistently sympathetic character would be Dani, having lost her family and continuing to be deeply traumatized throughout the film. However, any empathy the audience is going to have stems from what has happened to her rather than who she is. As an actual character, she doesn’t have much of a personality outside of being a kind, caring individual surrounded by complete louts.
As is typical for a horror film, the plot of Midsommar is frequently advanced by the main characters making profoundly foolish decisions. Mark callously urinates on the tree where the commune’s dead ancestors have been placed, Josh attempts to photograph a sacred text after being forbidden from doing so, and Christian ignores all of the blatantly obvious signs that something is wrong with the commune. In their foolishness, they completely and utterly doom themselves.
What is especially jarring about this development is that these characters are supposed to be fairly intelligent. I would be far more understanding of the protagonists’ stubbornness had they possessed the typical low intelligence associated with the average horror-film cast, but at least two of these characters are attempting to write a college thesis. Intelligent people are fully capable of making unwise decisions, but it doesn’t take a Bachelor’s degree to connect the dots and deduce that something is seriously wrong with this cult. Even if their refusal to leave could be attributed to being far away from a major city, why none of them had the idea to simply run and hide out somewhere until they were slated to return to the United States is never explained.
Otherwise, what I would have to say is the Achilles’ heel of Midsommar lies in its pacing. When crating a work of any kind, it’s important to grasp how much mileage you can get out of your ideas. With its minimalistic premise and compact selection of protagonists, the plot of this film does not come close to justifying a 147-minute runtime. One could have trimmed out thirty minutes of the film and lost nothing of substance. While a few critics, including those who enjoyed it, felt Hereditary was too long, I would at least argue the slow pacing tried to enhance the payoff. Here, the slow pacing doesn’t serve much of a purpose at all. As a result, the characters, with the exception of Dani, don’t get to undergo any kind of meaningful arc; they’re merely cannon fodder for when things take a turn for the worse. Christian could be considered a second exception, but this is mainly because you’re holding out hope that he isn’t as bad as he seems. You’re then just as disappointed as Dani when you learn he is.
What doesn’t help the film’s case is that, while Hereditary kept you guessing until the very end, even someone not versed in horror can determine where Midsommar is going fairly early. Exactly how it reaches its conclusion may not be obvious, but chances are good that you will be able to at least make an educated guess by the halfway point. Should this happen, the rest of the experience is an absolute slog as you wait for the pieces to very slowly fall into place. You’ll have a lot of beautiful imagery to soak in along the way, but it does little to assuage the wide gaps that exist between major story beats.
Admittedly, even with its myriad flaws, one incontestable advantage Midsommar has over Hereditary is that it sticks the landing far more gracefully. The endgame of the commune’s Hårga festivity was to sacrifice nine people – four outsiders, four of their own, and one chosen by the May Queen. Who gets to be the May Queen is determined by a game in which its candidates dance for as long as possible. As fate would have it, the winner is none other than Dani. Moments before, Christian was drugged and groomed into having sex with one of the commune’s members: a woman named Maja. Dani witnessed this after being crowned the May Queen and soon had a panic attack. Following her boyfriend’s betrayal, she sentences him to death. He is then burned alive, trapped in his own body – even the simple luxury of screaming is not afforded to him. Dani is horrified, but cracks a smile before the screen fades to black.
Although the setup is a little convoluted, I feel this film’s ending is better than that of Hereditary because the ritual clearly would have proceeded regardless of who ended up becoming the May Queen. The plot of Hereditary fell apart because it constantly relied on its characters, who seldom communicated with each other, taking one specific action. Had any character even slightly deviated from what was expected of them, the plan would have failed right there and then. Generally speaking, coincidences are easier to accept when the narrative doesn’t completely rely on them to function.
Dani choosing to damn Christian was merely in service to the film’s symbolism. In doing so, she is finally able to move on from what was holding her back this entire time and regain control of her life. Alternatively, she has been fully indoctrinated into this cult and will become a menace to society. Indeed, I have to praise Mr. Aster for learning from his biggest mistake when crafting the final act of Hereditary, wherein had a character explain, at length, what just happened. Here, he actually lets the ending speak for itself and gives the audience some degree of leeway, which makes it a better effort overall.
It is both a blessing and a curse that Midsommar manages to be an improvement over Hereditary. Between the two films, I have little doubt Midsommar is the easier sell, and it is nice watching somebody who previously took his craft too seriously loosen up a little for his sophomore effort. However, I still stand by my assessment that, when push comes to shove, Midsommar is an entry-level horror film. It features a cast primarily consisting of detestable louts, who, through their amazingly poor choices, make things substantially worse for themselves. In the wake of Jordan Peele’s own sophomore effort, Us, which bent the genres in numerous, creative ways, Midsommar feels behind the curve. There are only three facets separating it from the standard fare: the presence of a strong, auteur voice, the involvement of a lauded production company, and a sense of pacing that wouldn’t have felt out of place in Hollywood’s golden age.
Consequently, while I couldn’t recommend Hereditary in any capacity, where I stand on Midsommar is less straightforward. How you will feel about this film is going to depend entirely on where you stand when it comes to horror. If you’re a fan of the genre, you will enjoy what Mr. Aster’s work has to offer – provided you can properly acclimate yourself to its slow pacing, that is. By that same token, it doesn’t really transcend and appeal outside of its niche, so if you’re the type of person who only enjoys the genre at its best, feel free to skip this one.
Final Score: 5/10