Monday, October 28, 2019

Ten Days of Terror!: Midsommar

Film: Midsommar
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on rockin' flatscreen.

On my recent visit to Rockford, I stopped by one of the branches of the library to see what they had and was pleasantly surprised to find a copy of Midsommar. I’d heard about the film, of course, both good and bad, and assumed that, since it was mostly good, that it will appear on the next iteration of the They Shoot Zombies list. Nothing like knocking something out ahead of time, right?

Anyway, Midsommar stars a bunch of people I don’t know and Florence Pugh, who I like quite a bit. The box art (and the best-known poster) features Pugh wearing a floral crown and crying. Based on that, I figured we were going to be looking at something along the lines of The Wicker Man, and there are certainly some real similarities here. Midsommar is ethnographic horror in the same way as The Wicker Man, or films like The Green Inferno or even Cannibal Holocaust. What we’re getting is the horror of a culture, and specifically the horror that stems from the beliefs of that culture.

We start with Dani (Florence Pugh), who is pretty much on the verge of breaking up with her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) in part because Christian and his friends find her to be desperately needy, particularly regarding her sister, who frequently sends disturbing texts and emails. Dani has just gotten one such email and discovers that her sister has not only killed herself, but also their parents. So, Dani may well have been needy, but clearly with a reason.

Because of this trauma, Dani is invited to Sweden with Christian and friends Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper) to visit the commune where their friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) was raised. While there, they will get a chance to see the area’s Midsommar festival, and this one, according to Pelle, happens only once every 90 years.

Things (of course) go from idyllic to disturbing to downright lethal pretty quickly. There are certainly hints that things are going to be strange early on, but we’re not too far into a movie when we start seeing people killing themselves for sake of the ritual, and shortly after this, guests of the commune start disappearing. Interspersed in all of this is the splintering relationship between Dani and Christian, egged on by the clear sexual energy between Christian and Maja (Isabelle Grill), a young woman of the commune who, we are told, has been given permission to have sex with Christian to inject new genetic material into the society.

What Midsommar really is is a reminder of just how upsetting and disturbing the religious rituals and practices of other people can be when they aren’t the comforting ones we grew up with. To someone raised in a predominantly Christian culture, a ritual like communion is perfectly normal. To an outsider new to the idea, the ritualized eating of the flesh and drinking of the blood of the savior is almost certainly horrifying. So it is with the Harga people in this mythical area of Sweden. This is a group that is nonchalant about some very brutal deaths, and who see the sort of self-sacrifice that happens several times during the course of the film as just an aspect of the circle of life. Moments that, to someone raised with what they find to be a benevolent religion seem shocking or brutal are, to the Harga, simply natural and not to be feared.

And that’s what the film does extremely well. We’re given something that, on the surface, looks like it should be wholesome and good fun. There’s dancing and hints of sex and communal psychoactive drug use. But there’s something much darker going on below the surface. To the prudish West, the sexual attitudes of the group are surprisingly open (and when we actually get to a sex scene, the openness is really—to coin a phrase—naked). And while a healthy attitude toward sex is refreshing, this is the sort of ritual that Joseph Campbell used to talk about that linked sex and death inexorably in the minds of the participants.

What Midsommar serves to remind us of is that the beliefs of others are often terrifying. What lengths will a true believer go to when threatened? What actions won’t someone perform in service of his or her faith? Who among us is truly safe when others act at the mercy of inexplicable systems of belief?

The genius of Midsommar is that much of what happens that is terrible and brutal happens in full daylight. Even what happens at night is happening in a midnight sun time of year, so all of what is awful happens in brightness. Time of day no longer matters in this, and what we have is a sort of constant brightness. Like Insomnia, the constant light quickly becomes almost a character in its own right.

In short, Midsommar has everything I want in a horror movie. The scares are real and don’t rely on cheap jump scare tactics. It goes for something much deeper than just the gross out (but it doesn’t shy away from that, either). It’s thoughtful, and while there are certainly aspects of the movie that attempt to influence on a lower common denominator, there’s a lot here that is smart, and more upsetting because it is so. This is what horror movies should aspire to be—truly disturbing and upsetting. Midsommar is dangerous, and that’s why it’s worth seeing.

Why to watch Midsommar: It’s upsetting in the best ways.
Why not to watch: If you’re not down for being disturbed, you’re not going to have a good time.


  1. Sounds anthropologically interesting. It's on my list now. Thanks.

    1. You might want to pair it with the original The Wicker Man.

  2. I really liked this too. Seeing it on the big screen was great as you were bathed in the golden sunlight that permeates the whole story. You're right about it being a character in its own right. I also liked the languid pace, and the constant sitting down to meals which marked the time passing (and the characters disappearing). The ending was great: both sickening and satisfying. Florence Pugh is one of the best actors working today, and she was brilliant here too. Christian must surely go down in film history as one of the worst boyfriends on screen.

    1. Christian might be among the worst non-homicidal boyfriends at the very least.

      There is something otherworldly in the setting that I think really works for the film. It feels set in the real world but not really set in the real world somehow, and the brightness (and pacing) are a big part of that.