Review: “Midsommar”

Movies, Reviews

I was not in a hurry to watch Midsommar. There is a trope in the horror genre to take an innocent cultural moment and cloak it in the occult. I am always very hesitant to approach these films, but I must give my apologies for being late to the party. I can say that this film was quite the experience. 

    As artistic as it was unsettling, every scene packed imagery with power. The creative team behind this picture should be lauded without end during the award season. The setting was beautiful, yet unsettling. The imagery was representational, yet foreign. In an already crowded toolbox, pace proved the best used tool for exploiting the viewer. I cannot say enough about the way this film was able to push the boundaries of the modern big picture landscape. 

    The setting turned off the few Swedes I know. My dear friends in Stockholm were PISSED this movie about Swedish Midsummer (their favorite holiday) was shot in Norway.  A perspective I certainly understand, but easily moved on. For a film shot primarily outdoors they picked a true Eden. A green valley nestled, or perhaps hidden, by the surrounding woods and hills. With only a few buildings spaced about. We are now introduced to a seemingly peaceful commune of Swedes ready to host our protagonists for a week of celebration. As our protagonists, American college students, began engaging with their hosts, my wife and I could feel a growing tension of, “it’s too good to be true.”

    The first, yet subtle, clue to recognizing the dangers of the remote paradise came from the design of the buildings. All wood and certainly built by the members of the commune, each with architecture that represented the building’s true purpose. The simple barn shapes are where the mildest interactions take place. The buildings with a front porch are homes or kitchens. The large building in the middle of the field with a sharp angle leading to a tall roof straight down to a short foyer bears intrigue, and would be the primary setting for a number of plot changing moments. Finally, the yellow A-frame set away from the commune with a grid-like garden served as the grand entrance. The only building on its own. The only building with color. Ominous and terrifying, before we know what horrors await. 

    The architecture is not the only imagery that is familiar but deserves further attention. The dining tables serve their purpose, and yet are set in the shape of what we assume to be an old Scandinavian rune.  The beginnings of a ceremony that sees the commune dress in all white and approach a quarry of similar color (salt or marble perhaps) strongly resembles the southern baptism scenes I grew up with, but I cannot shake the feeling that rebirth won’t have the same meaning here. The harshness of the mine contrasts well with the green fields of the commune. 

    The second half of the film flirts with avant garde dream sequences. As successful a representation of hallucinations as I have ever seen. Flowers, grass, smiles, eye contact, every point of focus must be questioned as honest, sinister, or perhaps a grander metaphor. For the final hour I could not stop asking myself, “Oh, what does that represent?” 

Still from “Midsommar” 2019, Ari Aster

    The plot of the story flows through a familiar path many horror and suspense films traverse. In fact it is the weakest aspect of the film. Yet I believe this is where the creative team does their best work. The movie is nothing if not a lesson in how to make the predictable exciting. Without giving too much away, each dark turn of the story changes the pace. Quick shots, slow transitions, jump scenes and flashbacks attack the viewer in a complex experience within a conventional story. 

    I left the film with only one other complaint. A complaint I must echo from my friends in Stockholm, who saw their favorite holiday draped in the occult. I can certainly understand their frustration. Every southerner has experienced this with each new horror film labeled “Southern Gothic.” This is unfortunate, as anyone familiar with the Swedish people and the Midsommar holiday would recognize the unique and terrifying world the creative team developed was intentionally exaggerated. 

    Upon reflection, I find myself with little criticism and too much praise to write down without spoiling the film. I cannot wait to see more from all those involved in making Midsommar.