Midsommar gradually builds into a furious, fever dream of a movie. It ranks as one of the most bizarre, confounding cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. Undoubtedly, people will stagger out of the theater with polarized opinions of it. I found the story to be both intensely compelling and yet emotionally wearying at the same time. Writer-director Ari Aster (Hereditary) delivers some surprisingly layered insights on human nature, along with some of the most unsettling images you’re bound to catch in any movie anywhere.
This is such a bewildering film, I honestly don’t know how to rate it: It’s well-acted, beautifully filmed, and sweepingly audacious. In a world where rice cake-bland movies roll off the assembly line with alarming regularity, it’s tough to ding something that’s so unapologetically ballsy. At the same, while I admired all the craft on display, I can’t say I enjoyed this film all that much. So, I’ll just split the difference somewhere between one and five. Anybody who’s squeamish or easily offended, you’ve been warned.
Our story begins with Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh), a college student who experiences a disturbing family trauma. Christian (Jack Reynor), her flaky, passively abusive boyfriend, is immediately torn between his dutiful obligation to pat Dani on the shoulder and his desire to head to Europe with his bros and rack up some strange. Christian compromises and brings Dani along, earning her Yoko-levels of contempt with his horny buddies.
A Swedish friend (Vilhaml Blomgren) invites the group to visit the commune where he grew up. Dani, Christian, and company trek to the Swedish countryside and take in an idyllic masterpiece of fanatical hippie bliss. All the commune natives gobble down hallucinogenic drugs and speak in a the same pleasantly menacing monotone. Everything is hunky-dory at this hipster Renaissance Faire until the robe-wearing locals start sending out some definite Jonestown vibes. It isn’t long before the gang realizes they’re plunk in the Valley of Murdering Weirdos.
Midsommar may be a horror movie, but its carnage gets framed with art-house elegance. Aster does a masterful job depicting the creeping tentacles of cult life: What starts as a loony Oktoberfest-style carnival ends up as an all-encompassing tangle with sex, drugs, and death. This is one of those rare horror movies where people react to weird shit just like we might in real life: They freak out and wanna leave the compound. Some in the group want to stay for academic purposes…or to hook up with randy cult women. Either way, this movie does a great job giving us actual human characters, surrounded by a sea of craziness.
This movie reminded me of the parable about the frog: If you take a frog and toss it into a boiling pot, it’ll immediately jump out. Dump that same frog into a pot of tap water and crank up the temp, and it’ll boil to death. Nobody joins a group like this with the idea that they’ll someday be wild-eyed zealots in a Kool-Aid line. This parable also illustrates the effect that Midsommar has on its audience: A story that starts out as a straightforward character study spends its final act in a boiling, bubbling cauldron of madness and gruesome violence. Here you can find scenes of ritualistic sex acts, intricate torture, and mass murder. Several stunned people walked out of the theater long before it was all over.
Again, I’m not sure what to make of all this. Midsommar obviously isn’t one of those horror movies out for a few cheap jump scares. It paradoxically aims to be subtle, shocking and provocative, all at once. It’s made to crawl into your nightmares and stay there. For the strong of stomach, this movie will likely succeed on all those fronts. At the same time, I can’t quite bring myself to recommend it. Midsommar is fascinating on an intellectual level, but it’s just too visceral and too exhausting to be entertaining.
147 min. R.
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