31 Days of Horror: Midsommar and folk dread by daylight

Florence Pugh in Midsommar - Courtesy A24/Gabor Kotschy
Florence Pugh in Midsommar - Courtesy A24/Gabor Kotschy /

In Midsommar there’s a moment in the early half of the third act where a gigantic face appears on the side of the forest. A pattern of eyes, nose, and frowning mouth made from the trunks and leaves, overlooking the Swedish village of Harga.

It’s a fleeting image, no more than a few seconds, and you’ll likely miss it if you’re not looking for it but its Magic Eye quality holds such an anthropomorphized gaze that I couldn’t help but feel the agrarian gods the Hargans worship were looking down on the mayhem of their rituals with pleasure and expectation.

It’s a definitive, disquieting visual metaphor for this unsettling film where the horror is other people, and how the yearning to find kinship can transform you into that very same evil.

What’s Midsommar about?

After 2018’s Hereditary, Ari Aster’s 2019 folk horror project still fits smack dab in what’s been recently called the sub-genre of the “unstoppable horror.” It’ a loose term that encompasses movies coming out of the West where the centerpiece is a relentless, marauding force; whether it’s the corrupting medieval demon of The Witch (2015), the modern shape-shifting curse that slaughters in It Follows (2014), the surreal others of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) and Us, and the druidic mayhem of Gareth Evans’ Apostle (2018)—this last one comes closest of all to the themes and motifs of Midsommar.

Like in Hereditary, in Midsommar the bad guy is also seemingly unbeatable. The joyful dread comes from watching how the heroes inevitably fall to immense, entropic forces arrayed against them. This time it’s in the form of a tight-knit, isolated community in Sweden.

It starts placidly enough with a relationship on the rocks. American doctoral students Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) and her anthropology major boyfriend Chris Hughes (Jack Reynor) are trying to work out their love life, but Chris’s buddies are urging Chris to “dump the crazy bitch.”

And while Chris mulls over how to uncouple himself, we see Dani taking psychiatric medication, worrying about the impending break-up she feels is coming and also about cryptic and gloomy emails coming from her younger sister back home. A few days later, Dani’s sister is reported to have committed suicide, taking their parents along with her.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – JUNE 18: (L-R) Actors Vilhelm Blomgren, Florence Pugh, director Ari Aster, actors Jack Reynor and Will Poulter attend the “Midsommar” New York screening at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema on June 18, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Jim Spellman/Getty Images) /

Midsommar’s brutal first act

The first act of the film is the most horrifying, as we are taken through a long, torturously slow shot of the Ardor house and shown the elaborate way Dani’s sister killed herself: car exhausts, towels and duct tape, plenty of long garden hoses, and a generous helping of carbon monoxide. It’s through the same method that she did in her parents as well.

Like Hereditary’s asthma attack gone fubar, that scene is beautifully grim, a trigger to anyone who’s lost a loved one to suicide or have thoughts of self-harm.

Upon hearing the news, Dani wails like a maimed animal in Chris’s arms, charged by a constant agony of grief in the movie, their deaths haunting her throughout. In light of recent events, Chris’s plans for a breakup are delayed. He doesn’t want to look like the piece of crap that would dump a newly orphaned woman.

His WASPy, jockish, and barely-there EQ has little idea of how to comfort his girlfriend, and he’s depicted as an incapable partner up until the end. Chris’s hemming and hawing stretches out until  the day their planned trip to Sweden comes up.

Midsommar and location, location, location

Turns out that Chris’s anthro buddies, Josh (William Jackson Harper as the token smart and sensible black guy) and Mark (Will Poulter as the token jockish and swaggering Caucasian bro-dude), are accompanying their colleague, Swedish exchange scholar Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), back to his native village of Harga, in Sweden. It’s where they will witness and participate in the cultural delights of the fabled festival.

“It may all seem silly, at first,” Pelle sheepishly admits to Dani. And so in there is an awkward invite by Chris to Dani, and a similarly awkward agreement to tag along by Dani.

Soon enough Dani is throwing up on the plane to Stockholm, then they’re all walking to a sprawling, secluded field in a Swedish province, being offered welcoming mushrooms by the smiling villagers, and experiencing time distortions courtesy of full sunlight at 9PM.

The cinematography is gorgeous. Primary colors abound starkly against minimalist production design that echoes an Ikea catalog. A lingering, masterful drone shot at one point gives us the lay of the idyllic land, a far cry from the chiaroscuro and dimness of most horror films.

Aster and his set decorator Henrik Svensson are excellent visualists, like in Hereditary and with Pawel Pogorzelski in 2023’s Beau is Afraid. The light and white costumes, the colorful profusion of flowers, and the fact that most of the scenes are in daylight give the viewer a sense that with Vitamin D all the time, nothing too bad can happen here.

Midsommar is Aster’s obra

Since this is an Aster film, you just feel it in your bones that the awfully nice townsfolk with their smiles and complimentary shrooms hide a sinister design.

It’s barely suspicious when the Hargans describe looking upon life in seasons; where childhood, adulthood, and old age are divvied up into the spring, summer, fall and winter. But then the rest of the movie turns on its folk horror by rapid degrees, confronting us with the normalized bruality of the Harga tribe.

What really holds it together and is most interesting is how the themes isolation, family, and the seeking for a tribe, are twisted into grotesqueries. It’s in that warping of kinship, the price of belonging, and the role of light and dark that Midsommar shines as a modern megalith of folk horror.

In Midsommar the handful of dark hours are more like a fleeting mirage, and it’s in full afternoon sun that Pelle tells Dani that “I have always been held and I always shared my sadness,” when he sees her in the throes of another grief attack, isolated by her sorrow and nightmares of abandonment that her boyfriend and travel buddies would simply up and leave her.

Midsommar director Ari Aster
HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 24: Ari Aster attends the Premiere Of A24’s “Midsommar” at ArcLight Hollywood on June 24, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images) /

Midsommar embraces Dani into community

As a recent orphan, Pelle’s subtle enticement to open herself up to the rituals of the Harga if only for fleeting moments of communal bliss are powerfully seductive. And out of all the Americans it’s Dani, unfettered by blood family, that adjusts the best to the brutal, seemingly idyllic way of life that the Hargans are offering as shared experience.

The village women share in Dani’s grief through mutual touch and concurrent wailing, they share in the experience of sex and fertility, in ceremonial suicide, and in the collective exorcism of the village’s sins through grisly seasonal ritual murder.

Dani feels held and attended to, finally. We are all Dani, looking for community in all the wrong places and finding it in the strangest one.

For the Hargans, it’s simply a question of paying the Via Dolorosa towards that becoming. The visceral experience that enables Dani to finally exorcise her overwhelming grief and trauma is extravagant to the eye, as she is preponderantly weighed down by hundreds of flowers. It’s one of Aster’s masterfully edifying, haunting emblems that will stick with viewers.

Midsommar’s flaws and blemishes

It’s certainly far from perfect with its glacier-paced 147 minutes, the end comes as only vaguely unsettling. Getting there is also downright confusing at times. You may doze off even as the sun is blazing high in the movie.

Everything that happens in Harga is obscure and vague, many murderous money shots done off-screen, casually explained or not at all. Everything after the latter half of the second act plays out like a music video, with little setup and context for the cultural rituals (that Aster also said he borrowed from real midsommar celebrations and simply dialed up the killing atmosphere) that will just make you go: why is all this happening?

“I should have explained it to them better,” quips one of the Hargans. That statement is pretty damn apt for the rest of the movie.

Midsommar is a cinematic folk horror megalith

Both Dani and Chris participate the deepest and most willingly in the Hargan rituals, short of chomping on some local surstromming, but only one of them adjusts fully, smiling painfully at the closing scene.

Why? Because though finding one’s tribe has been accomplished there is an unbelievable price that must be paid for being held in soothing community, for the comfort of belonging.

I must confess Hereditary’s madness post-grandma’s death was much more comprehensible and simpatico, but Midsommar godlike face in the forest still haunts me.

You can watch Midsommar on Prime Video.

Next. 31 Days of Horror: The beautiful brutality of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. dark