Horror traditionally unfolds in the dark, exploiting our most primal, lizard-brain fears: What we can’t see can – and often does – kill us (it did where our first, bipedal ancestors were concerned), but horror can happen anywhere, not just in the dark. It can happen in a calm, quiet, idyllic settings, like a suburban or rural home. It can happen also under the glaring, never-ending glare of the midnight sun, as perpetually grinning, muslin-clad, pagan cultists invite you and yours to participate in their unique celebration of the summer solstice. And if you’re the typical “ugly American,” entitled, white (or white-adjacent), and privileged, you won’t live to see the end of summer. Part homage to the folk-horror of The Wicker Man, the rural terror of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Americans abroad sub-genre typified by Hostel, and part relationship melodrama, Ari Aster’s (Hereditary) second film, Midsommar, confirms his status as a one-of-a-kind generational talent.
Midsommar opens not in the blinding sun – that comes later – but in stark contrast, in the figurative (and later) literal dead of winter, as falling snow obscures the film’s title sequence and the central character, Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh), an on-edge, pill-popping grad student, becomes increasingly concerned about her mentally ill sister and her sister’s threat to make a life-altering decision. Dani’s long-time boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), indifferent to Dani’s needs or concerns, brushes away both as only an indifferent boyfriend or girlfriend can. Time proves Dani right and Christian wrong, putting Christian in an awkward, unfortunate situation: So close to ending their failed relationship on the advice of his grad-student friends, Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter), guilt and obligation – social constructs as much as emotional ones – convince Christian to stick it out, a decision he constantly, repeatedly regrets as Dani’s needs overwhelm his own (e.g., hanging/chilling with his friends, doing bong hits, playing video games).
When Dani learns about Christian and his friends long percolating plans to visit a remote village in the North of Sweden, with a fellow classmate, the soft-spoken, bearded Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), as their tour guide, she practically invites herself along to their summer sojourn. Despite Josh and Mark’s muted objections – they’re also bound by social custom, if not emotional ones – Christian folds, allowing Dani to join the group. When they arrive in Pelle’s village, a centuries-, if not millennia-old communal village that time has apparently forgotten, their agendas – Mark just wants to do hallucinogens and hopefully get laid, Josh wants to closely study the villagers, the Horga, for his grad-school thesis, while the aimless, morally and ethically compromised Christian, looks for personal and professional opportunities to exploit, leaving Dani to fend for herself, emotionally, mentally and physically – not just clash and conflict, but blind them to the villagers’ increasingly ominous rituals, their own isolation, and in Dani’s case, a not-so-subtle recruitment into the cult.
Christian may be a bad, unsupportive boyfriend, but setting aside hyperbole, he’s far from the “worst boyfriend in the world.” He’s another solipsistic, egotistical, self-absorbed American, keenly aware of his own needs, but only vaguely aware of anyone else’s, including Dani, his girlfriend of four years. Like Mark and Josh, Christian has his own motivations for remaining in the village even after Horga invite them to the first of increasingly brutal, violent public rituals. They’re immune to the physical danger the Horga represent, due in part to the deep-seated sense of white, American entitlement that permeates their attitudes and behaviors (as an American grad student with white friends, Josh sees himself as protected and immune too). That the Horga are also white and European removes the Americans sense of exoticism and danger. It makes their decision to stay – and stay – all the more rational and believable even as the audience, always four or five steps ahead instinctively grasps the real risks and danger the Americans face.
For Dani, the Horga initially represent a collective object of curiosity, then gradually, methodically, an alternative to the stunted, unsatisfying relationships the Americans, especially Christian, represent. In a telling scene, a broken, distraught Dani – she’s been broken since we met her, but to her, the ultimate betrayal, leaves her shattered – the women of the village surround a wailing Dani, initially mimicking or mirroring her behavior (cries, body spasms) until they’re crying and moving in unison, their hands lightly touching Dani. Moviegoers will likely react with a mix of shock, surprise, and maybe even nervous laughter. (Aster intuitively understands there’s a fine line between terror and laughter, crossing that line, often intentionally.) Their behavior can be read as performative, but even performative behavior can be touched with genuine, real emotion. Regardless of how their behavior reads, it’s an emotional and narrative turning point in Dani’s arc and therefore, Midsommar.
Credit to Aster for doing his research into the nature of cults and how they operate. The Horga may be a fictionalized pagan cult, existing nowhere in our reality, but they still operate like a cult. They entice and enthrall, offering an idyllic, happy environment. They welcome outsiders with behavior bordering on obsequiousness. They offer a sense of community and belonging, of love and affection that, at least for Dani, becomes almost impossible to resist. Through Pelle, gentle, centered, non-judgmental, they offer Dani an “in” to their community, offering a way out and through the crippling emotional pain and anguish she can barely handle, let alone hide. Real cults work similarly, targeting the most emotionally vulnerable and offering them an alternative to isolation and loneliness. For Dani, the Horga perversely represent what she truly needs (for the others, it probably spells their doom).
Midsommar, of course, isn’t an anthropological study in the nature of cults or even a deep-dive into PTSD and how poorly it’s handled by American society. It’s also not just a study in white-male entitlement or an exploration of American masculinity of the semi-benign, semi-toxic kind. Aster swaps the mostly static shots in the prologue with long, sweeping, stalking, Kubrickian tracking shots for the Sweden-set (actually Hungary more than serviceably standing in for their northwestern counterpart) scenes that contribute to the growing sense of existential dread. It’s first, if not foremost, a horror film, a film where, step by methodical step, unsuspecting Americans are both literally and figuratively brought to the struggle. Their fates, like the fate of the central character in Aster’s touchstone, The Wicker Man, have the inevitability of tragedy, but it’s Dani’s fate – and Florence Pugh’s emotional transparency and willingness to plumb the depths of emotional trauma and pain – that ultimately animates, ultimate elevates Midsommar above other, surface-deep entries in the horror genre (or any other genre for that matter).