(We’ve danced up some spoilers) Ari Aster made a splash with his debut horror movie Hereditary. Hereditary, like all good films, has many levels to it. The hook was the demonic possession. Much like Rosemary in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby the son in Hereditary had been primed to be the vessel for the demon king Paimon. However, Hereditary is also about a failing marriage and a family falling apart after the tragic death of the daughter. Midsommar is not as layered as Hereditary.
Midsommar is more direct than Aster’s first film. Dani, played by Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth) is dating Christian. Dani, to say the least, is complicated. Dani’s sister is described as bipolar which makes dating Dani difficult because she is always concerned about her sister. Her sister sends Dani a very cryptic email at the beginning of the movie. We quickly learn why the email has Dani on edge.
Dani’s sister kills herself by carbon monoxide poisoning in the most elaborate manner possible. She links the tailpipes from two cars together with a tube. She then connected a tube to the end of the last tailpipe, ran the tube through the house to the second floor, and into her bedroom. This feat is clearly meant to show how dedicated Dani’s sister was to her suicide.
Except she wasn’t done with her elaborate suicide plan. Before taping the end of the tube to her mouth and nose she taped over the bottom of her parent’s bedroom door. We can assume she was trying to prevent the car fumes from entering the bedroom. We can also assume she did all this while the cars were running without waking her parents. It’s an over elaborate ploy to force a future set up.
Dani’s family had to die in order for her to find her way to Sweden. Christian and his friends Mark and Josh had all been invited to visit their friend Pelle’s self-styled hippie commune home in Sweden. Josh, played by William Jackson Harper (The Good Place), had a vested interest in visiting Pelle’s commune home Harga. Pelle’s home in Sweden fit the bill for a hands on study of ancient traditions Josh would need for his doctoral thesis.
The other two friends, like Dani, are along for the ride with no clear point other than being friends with Pelle. It’s only until much later in the film Christian decides to write about Harga. It would have been helpful to have known what his major was before leaving for Sweden. We’re never really sure except that Christian wants to write about Hagra which causes friction, for the sake of friction, between the two friends.
Once in Harga Midsommar unfolds on an almost predictable pace. You don’t need a doctorate in May Day traditions to know nothing good is going to happen when the group arrives in Sweden. One viewing of The Wicker Man is the only education you need to know there will be a lot of May Day mayhem in the future.
Aster wraps a lot of Midsommar in atmospheric, moody, and even haunting music reminiscent of the score used in Hereditary. Without the darker tones and scarier elements of Hereditary Aster has to rely on the music to inform the audience when something “scary” is going to happen. Unfortunately, nothing really scary happens in Midsommar.
This isn’t to say Midsommar isn’t shocking. Shock, for the most part, is all Midsommar has to offer. One of the first things the group witness is the tradition of Attestupa. Attestupa is an ancient Nordic tradition where elders of a tribe throw themselves off a cliff. The idea is that they would no longer be a burden to the tribe.
The group witnesses two elderly members of Harga jump off a cliff to the rocks below. One of them dies instantly upon impact. The other one has to be put out of his misery by repeated blows with a hammer to the head. Aster zooms his camera more than once on the brutalized head. Mark later asks how the others could let him sleep through something so “cool.” This is the material we have to sit through for most of Midsommar.
The shocks don’t end with the cliff. Mark is murdered after peeing on an ancestor tree. His face is later worn by an unknown member of the commune who murders Josh. One outsider, introduced long enough to be killed, is shown with his back splayed open and his still breathing lungs suspended by wires. The three men are seen at the end of the movie with a paralyzed Christian being burned alive.
Aster’s Midsommar is steeped in fertility traditions both new and ancient. Aster may or may not have made up some of the traditions shown in the movie. What he did not invent is the tradition of the May Queen. He also did not invent the fact that the May Queen is sacrificed at the end of the ancient traditions. Dani is crowned the May Queen after dancing the may pole high on hallucinogenic drugs.
The ending is the only thing in Midsommar up for debate. Is Dani sacrificed at the end of the movie? The smile would say she isn’t going to be sacrificed, but the tradition says she will be sacrificed. In a brief moment of foreshadowing Aster pans the camera across the communal living quarters of the younger members of the commune. Painted on the wall is a childish drawing of a May Queen being burned alive. Yet Pelle tells Dani Harga is where she can find a family.
Aster may have taken a gamble setting a horror movie during the day. At least that’s what a lot of reviewers would have us believe. Plenty of horror movies from The Birds to Jaws to The Devil’s Rejects take place during the day. Deep down in human DNA is a fear of the dark. It’s why tiny things scare us more in the dark than in the day. The light has a way of making everything feel safe.
Day time horror can work, but there has to be something in the movie to scare us. Whether or not we knew how each member was going to die we knew they were going to die. Aster telegraphs his intentions from the opening credits. Midsommar is only interesting because the viewer is bringing preconceived notions from Hereditary.
Hereditary relied a lot on implied horror. Aster left a lot to the viewer’s imagination. We’re not as fortunate in Midsommar because Aster shows his hand in every scene. The viewer is even treated to an old lady helping Christian impregnate a young girl.
Midsommar isn’t a bad movie. It just doesn’t live up to the bar set by Hereditary. To be fair Aster set the bar pretty high. Meeting or even exceeding that bar may prove rather difficult. Aster is at the start of a career, which from all outside of appearances, is on the right track. It’s a safe bet he has another horror movie in him. Whether or not it exceeds Midsommar remains to be seen.