Rated R. This is A24 R. People told me that this is the most disturbing movie that I will ever see. Yeah, I now feel bad about myself because I have seen worse. Does it make the top 20? Probably. (Is it bad that I can't even commit to a top 10?) It is a very disturbing movie. There's lots of uncomfortable sex scenes and lots of nudity. There's drug use throughout. There's some very unique gore in the movie. There's also some pretty disturbing images of suicide. It is an R-rated movie that has a goal of being disturbing. Hard R.
DIRECTOR: Ari Aster
My students were all talking about Midsommar. Yeah. That's when I knew that this one was going to be more popular than the other A24 movies I had caught before this moment. Knowing what is in this movie is pretty bad, and I was absolutely mortified to know that high school teenagers were watching something like this. I'm still on the side of, "They probably shouldn't be watching this kind of stuff", but I want to couple that with the admission that this was the prime time in my horror career. In high school, the more disturbing, the better. This is my time reading Fear Street books and finding ways into R-rated movies. I would talk about The Exorcist as if it was an urban legend. Yeah, I think A24 have probably upped the content standards of the horror movie. But let's be honest. I would have been first in line to see this movie in theaters. (That being said, I don't approve. I just get it.)
Midsommar is definitely shocking. I will never deny that. I won't downplay it. But it is also very on-brand for A24. Ari Aster's last movie, Hereditary, was actually more disturbing to me. But that comes down to what messes with your mind. Midsommar's big pull for me is the juxtaposed tone to what is happening with the movie. I'm going to be dropping Hereditary references a lot, so please just indulge me for now. Hereditary had an easy job, compared to Midsommar. Aster, when he was making Hereditary, made a horror movie that looked like a horror movie. It was troubling and upsetting. I played up the idea of shadows and things coming in the dark. Like many of the A24 films, it was shot marvelously. But it still relied on a whole bunch of horror movie tropes that were meant to scare. Midsommar does quite the opposite. Very little of this movie is in the dark. While Hereditary made the grotesque scary, there's an odd beauty in the grotesque of Midsommar. Everything is out in the open. With Hereditary, the horror is the minority of society. It is something small that takes over someone's life. From moment one, we're kind of aware that the protagonist is entering a world of horror. Couple those ideas together for a second. The world of Hereditary is the protagonist being stalked by something small that becomes big. It hides in the shadows and is unseen. Midsommar has the protagonist being small and surrounded by evil, but it is completely visible.
I kind of love that Midsommar is a commentary on cultural clash. I mean, I kind of hate it too. I don't know if the message of Midsommar will hold up over time. But there's this us v. them attitude going throughout, only the weapon is politeness. From an American perspective, the movie is about civilization treating complex cultures as a vacation. There's this innate desire to be respectful, which I get and embrace. But the movie isn't about behavior, but of thought. Mark's presence in the movie is the Ugly American. If you've ever gone abroad, we're all warned not to be the Ugly American when visiting. It's about Mark's comfort level and he vocalizes his disgust with things all the time. In a weird way, when the movie's themes are kind of absorbed, there's something almost right about Mark's behavior. But I digress. Instead, the rest of the characters come there with appropriate behaviors, but with inappropriate mindset. There's never really a moment where the characters absorb the idea that maybe the civilization that they are visiting is as complex and appropriate as American capitalism and its subsequent norms. This is where the themes of the movie get really muddy because, guess what? The Americans are kind of right. This place is horrible and they should totally judge it. After all, it gets most of the characters killed in horrible ways. Mark also bites it, but at least Mark bites it being right.
There's a moment in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo where the protagonist knows that the killer is inviting him in to kill him, but decides to go in because it is impolite to show one's hand. I know this happens in the Fincher version at least. It's been too long since I've seen the original or read the original. That attitude is kind of taken to the extreme in Midsommar. There are moments where social norms are completely and objectively violated. It's a weird line to talk about because I'm totally on board witih not judging cultures for the things that we consider taboo. (Bee-tee-dubs, if I went to a country where the national dish was something that we'd consider a domesticated adorable animal, I would eat it in a heartbeat. Sorry everyone. You may continue to hate me.) There are things that are considered questionable. Placing pubic hair in tea might be the line in the sand for me. I don't know what side of the fence I fall on that one. But then there's the ritual suicide. The protagonists are visibly upset by this behavior. Yet, the people of the village are easily able to explain away and justify this action. Perhaps there's a bit of commentary on the fickleness of morals, but this moment is truly haunting. What is the right side of morality on this front? It feels like this is almost like a sociological / psychological hypothetical situation being played out in film. That's actually what makes Midsommar, and good cinema in general, so interesting. It gets people to think. I mean, I know for sure that I'd be rallying to leave as soon as possible from that moment. But it probably wouldn't end up very good for me.
If the entire thing is, indeed, about how fickle morality is, is the barn sequence the epitome of this argument? Because there might be the line of reality. There's something telling about sitting through ritual suicide. There might be all kinds of red flags when your friends go missing. The pubic hair scene...well, we have Fear Factor. But there's straight up cheating on your girlfriend. Then, there's cheating on your girlfriend when a whole bunch of naked people surround you. Sure, there's the drugs. Maybe the message of the movie is..."don't do drugs." But drugs are commonplace in this story. There's not really a narrative where the drugs are not an option. This ties back to the made up rules that associate horror movies since Friday the 13th.
I apologize for the bounding around, but that could account for Dani's survival. I love Florence Pugh and I don't know if it is actually an award for her to be a Final Girl that survives...technically. But Dani is the most moral character in the story. Throughout the story, her character is defined by her victimhood. Daily life is hell for her. Aster weaves this tale of what it is like to be a survivor when no one else is feeling pain. She does things that would be considered immoral in other horror movies. She does drugs, hesitantly. She trips and continues doing things that really toe the moral conventions. But Dani is aware of the problematic situation that she's in. She's not there to get high. She's there to give the impression to be normal. She's there to save her relationship to Christian, who sucks. The drugs thing, while technically her fault, is about the appearance of normality. She doesn't want anyone to feel left out. Aster makes her drug trip horrifying because it reflects the intentions of the drug use. There is something abusive about the way that the crew peer pressures her into drug use. While everyone else may be enjoying themselves, except Mark who is kind of xenophobic, Dani's drug trip is reflective of the lies she tells in her daily life. One of the coolest effects in the movie is the grass growing out of her hands. The concept of nature being parasitic kind of is a great image for the movie as a whole.
I give Midsommar so many props, but I have a really hard time saying it is a wholly original movie. Midsommar is a more intense The Wicker Man, which in itself is also pretty intense. I'm not talking about the Nicholas Cage "the-bees" travesty. I'm talking about the 1973 edition. I suppose I'm beating around the bush because I don't like the slippery slope that this goes down, but both The Wicker Man and Midsommar reflect the insanity of religion. It's so much easier to point fingers at cults because cults, by definition, are comprised of the outliers. They are instantly recognized as foolish by the rational world. But cults tend to be microcosms of the greater organized religion. This movie technically rallies against the problematic belief in religions. Unlike Hereditary, which gives us a clear cut answer about the existence of the supernatural, there's something more haunting about both The Wicker Man and Midsommar and their possibly misguided attitudes towards the divine. Everything in Midsommar is about ritual. Because these rituals are completed, the people attribute prosperity to these rituals. But it is critical of the academic atheist peeping in on the absurdity of ritualized religion. Also, William Jackson Harper is started to get typecast with that academic stuff.
I don't know if Midsommar is helping me get back on the A24 train. Since I see basically every A24 horror movie, I've been having a common thread on these essays that I'm burning out on them. I love that Midsommar's color palate actually existed. I loved that it was outside. But the tone is so oppressive in these movies that I don't know if I actually feel happy having seen them. It's kind of like binging Bergman without getting the street cred afterwards. You watch a Bergman or two, you love the intellectual stimulation and the attention to detail. But they are exhausting movies. A24 is smarter than the average horror movie, but they also are grim and bleak. There's only so much I can take to really be in the mindset of just dour misery. Either way, I can't say that Midsommar was a bad experience. It's just that I don't know if I could recommend it either. It's objectively pretty good. It just seemed like more on the sadness pile though.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.