Midsommar relies on stagnant horror tropes and archetypes but dresses it up with gorgeously horrifying imagery.
Midsommar is a beautifully stylized but standardly problematic slasher movie. In a time when horror movies are layered with more overt social and political commentary, and coming from the powerhouse production company A24, it seems at first as though Ari Aster’s Midsommar is going to attempt this as well, but falls short repeatedly. It is a movie that contrasts gorgeous, scenic imagery with gruesome violence very successfully and leaves the viewer intentionally nauseated. The success of the visual horror, however, distracts from the one-dimensional and unimaginative writing that only reinforces harmful horror tropes.
The film opens on Dani (Florence Pugh), a worried sister trying to get in touch with her family after receiving concerning messages from her sister. We are immediately contextualized that her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Raynor), is passive and inattentive, and Dani struggles with feeling like she leans on him too heavily. The scene ends with Dani learning that her sister, who is bipolar, has killed both of her parents and herself, and Dani is now parentless and familyless. Dani’s boyfriend then reluctantly invites Dani to join his group of friends to visit a midsummer festival in Sweden. Once there, Dani goes along with everything Christian and his friends want to do even when she doesn’t really want to do it herself.
The film sets Dani up to be someone in search of family. After her whole family is killed and she seemingly has few if any friends outside of her boyfriend and his friends, she’s quiet and eager to find people who support her and accepts lackluster affection and care from Christian. This is a direct set-up to understanding Dani as someone who is susceptible to fall prey to cult dynamics and the strongest take away the movie has to offer.
The most effective scene comes immediately after Dani sees Christian having what she believes to be consensual sex with someone else. Dani spirals and falls to the floor screaming and weeping. The rest of the women around her get on the floor with her, matching her cries until they are all screaming in sync. In a movie that searches to illuminate why somebody might join a cult, this scene nails it. We watch all of Dani’s pain absorbed by the group, and we as an audience start to absorb her pain. This writing is the strongest in the movie because it trusts the actors to deliver and the viewers to receive.
Beyond these moments of communal grief and ecstasy, the writing doesn’t live up to the movie’s acting or its imagery. All of the characters in this movie are written as archetypes as opposed to fully fleshed out human beings. Little is done to make us question Dani or her ethics, and the characters surrounding her are written just as one-dimensionally. Christian is written to be unlikable, and everything he does makes the audience groan in disgust. Dani is written to be a level-headed character, and we are meant to sympathize with her from our first interactions with her. Beyond that, there’s little understanding of either of these two as actual characters, which is difficult to excuse in a movie that seems to be attempting a horror/drama crossover similarly to Hereditary.
In 2019, with a new wave of more socially conscious horror, Midsommar is disappointing in the sources it derives horror from. It starts with Dani’s bipolar sister killing herself and her family, but it's only a plot furthering device, one that is easily replaceable. It’s a horrifying scene, but it’s only used to show Dani’s need for community, and it further attaches horror to mental illness unnecessarily. Later, Midsommar handles inbreeding just as flippantly. Once in Sweden, the community is full of very white people dressed almost exclusively in white clothing, with all characters of color being fairly level-headed outsiders, and it feels as though it might address these racial dynamics. When each of the characters of color is picked off, with no explicit address of race, it feels almost comically obtuse to this problematic horror trope.
While the movie sacrificed nuanced writing and characterization for the sake of visual horror, the visual horror did deliver. The mixture of overflowing greenery and gruesome violence has its intended effect, and the slow burn pacing of the film intensifies it. The scenes of violence are drawn out and sickening, with close ups and repeats of heads being smashed. By the end, I wanted to crawl out of my skin and was wondering how much longer I had to endure, and I see that as a success.
I will watch this movie again, and I will enjoy this movie again. It becomes easier to appreciate in my mind when it’s framed as a slasher rather than a drama, and when I don’t try to derive too much nuance from its writing. It doesn’t have to check all the boxes of nuanced filmmaking in order to be successfully horrifying, but it must also be acknowledged that it doesn’t check a good many of the boxes.