A strange and alluring action/horror bon bon, just right for mid-summer.
Director: Ari Aster (Hereditary)
Cast: Florence Pugh (Fighting with My Family), Will Poulter (Detroit)
Runtime: 2 hr 20 min
By: John DeSando
“In the beginning, I only wanted to know, love, and serve God and understand the Bible. What harm could that possibly bring?”
― Charlene L. Edge, Undertow: My Escape from the Fundamentalism and Cult Control of the Way International
The prize for most bizarre horror film of the year goes to Ari Aster’s Midsommar, a drama about young adults visiting a pagan cult in midnight sun, rural Sweden. Although Aster’s Hereditary last year was memorable for the severity of Toni Colette’s mother and an inevitable twist, nothing prepares for the fertility excesses in this fantastical expression of human reproductive and survival extremes.
Dani (Florence Pugh) has recently lost her whole family to suicide, and boyfriend Christian (Jack Raynor) is a soul lost to her demands for consolation and also committing to their relationship. Opportunity arises for them to join his buddies in a trip to a mid-summer fertility competition in liberal Sweden. Daylight horror is the operating aesthetic. As bodies pile up, it becomes more difficult to determine the next dreadful occurrence given our expectations from the usual horror tropes.
Director Aster ratchets up the macabre in small doses until before you know it, you’re dancing around that maypole with pure white- clad maidens and donning garlanded crowns in preparation for a competition that will determine the queen of May. The truly remarkable ceremony that ensues after Dani wins and Christian faces his own sacrifice is fraught with symbols of death and resurrection, sin and redemption.
Overly long at 140 minutes and lacking the deep family exposition of Hereditary, this shocker may remind you of the more benign Get Out and equally measured Witch or more civilized-seeming White Ribbon while it turns into graphic evisceration, programmed suicide, and violent sex. Throw in doses of surprisingly dark humor (Hostel comes to mind), especially from Will Poulter’s Mark, although some may be unintended, and you have a highly unusual summer fantasy.
Because ancient civilizations have sacrificed in order to guarantee survival (Mayans and their virgins tossed into cenotes come to mind), nothing here is new to the sacrificial patterns; it’s just that so many violent motifs occur in pristine summer light, we are seduced into thinking nothing is as bad as it actually turns out. The addition of occasional humor is also misleading although brilliantly mixed with enough dread not to compromise the darkness in the light.
A commentary on the vulnerability of young love and the search for painless life and death (exiting on the dot at 72 strikes this aging critic as harrowing), Midsommar is a caution against cultism, authoritarianism, and ageism especially when the summer gods with their alluring Zen offer a retreat from a complicated and remorseless modern civilization.
If you take to the strange in films with doses of graphic symbolism, then Midsommar may make you assess your relationships and your grief, perhaps longing for the comfort of winter darkness.
John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.rr.com