Towards the early half of Midsommar’s third act, 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.
After last year’s Hereditary, Ari Aster’s newest folk horror project still fits smack dab in what’s been recently called the sub-genre of the “unstoppable horror.” It’s 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.
As 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, and 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.
Stop at this point if you haven’t watched the movie, since we’ll be discussing story and theme parallels and so SPOILERS ABOUND FROM THIS POINT FORWARD.
A few days later, Dani’s sister is reported to have committed suicide, taking their parents along with her. 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. By the same method, 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 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 of their planned trip to Sweden. 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 white guy), are accompanying their colleague, Swedish exchange scholar Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), back to his native village of Harga, in Sweden, where they will witness and participate in the cultural delights of the fabled midsummer festival.
“It may all seem silly, at first,” Pelle sheepishly admits to Dani. And so 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 should be proud. 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.
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 brutality of the Harga tribe. What really holds it together and is most interesting is how the themes of 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’s folk horror shares the same narrative genes as Filipino tropical gothic.
In Richard Somes’ 2008 Yanggaw (Infection), embattled father Nyor (Ronnie Lazaro) can’t believe that his wife and son are willing to euthanize his returned prodigal daughter Amor, even when she’s clearly turning into an aswang monster and has already likely killed some villagers.
“I’m confident she won’t harm us because we’re her family!” declares Nyor in Filipino, convincing his family (who advocate either leaving her in the forest or taking her to see a shaman) that it’s the smartest thing to chain up their aswang daughter at night and barricade her room while they look for a cure to transform her back into a normal girl. Anything to keep his family together.
Tropical gothic, a term taken from Filipino author Nick Joaquin’s story of the same title, revels in duality, the visuals of light and dark becoming the playground. Daytime heat creates the longest shadows, under their crisp penumbra playing perverse, high family drama, while the cold of night belongs to the supernatural, the nightmares, and monsters that often simply reflect the twisted relations gestated in daylight.
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, fearing that her boyfriend and travel buddies would simply up and leave her.
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.
Similarly, in Mike De Leon’s Itim (Black), a 1976 classic of tropical gothic, the community of the village of San Idelfonso is knit together through faith, culture, and its perversions.
The séance by Catholic spiritualists, talking to the dead, the possession of a woman by her sister’s spirit, and the statues and saints depicted as spooky religious imagery, are all archaic and quaintly comedic to the hero Jun (Tommy Abuel). But his refusal eventually collapses and he is drawn into the eroticism of the supernatural intertwined with Catholic traditions.
Though Jun started the story as a photographer, observing through the lens eventually became unsatisfying. He, too, was looking to belong.
Midsommar’s monster, viewed through the main arc of Dani’s tribelessness and seeking a tribe, is resonantly similar. Whether it’s Jun in Itim investigating the mystery of Teresa’s possession, or Nyor in Yanggaw protecting his monstrous daughter at the expense of friends and family. We are all Dani, looking for community in all the wrong places and finding it in the strangest one.
Tropical gothic’s evil often acts at night, but it’s the drama and dread that happens during daylight that matters, from which events are propelled by. Not the hunger of an aswang or the haunting of the dead, but by decisions made by normal folk when the sun is high. At night, the monsters may walk, but in the morning they remain our family. Across cultures, the kinslayer is most accursed, so how to deal with such a problem?
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.
Ari Aster has confessed that he wrote this movie after a break-up, trying to dramatize the metaphor that a grand uncoupling always feels like tall, painful melodrama. It may also be the worst scripted of his filmography.
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 after a bunch of rituals deeply upset the British couple that came at the same time as Dani and the Americans. That statement is pretty damn apt for the rest of the movie.
Where it shines is in the haunting visuals, in the exquisite acting by both Pugh and Reynor—the partners in this danse macabre of the worst-timed breakup. Their emotions and decisions hold up the actual rafters of this narrative, whereas the murderous culture of the natives, even their American friends’ fates as next season’s fertilizer are all mere filigree.
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.
Folk horror and tropical gothic are kissing cousins despite the midnight sun of the Swedish summer solstice. Whether its terrors play out in full sunlight as the emotionally vulnerable Dani spirals deeper into Hargan culture, or in the halved night and day cycle where Jun in Itim is seductively haunted in the equally haunted village of San Idelfonso, and as in Nyor’s willful, fatherly need to protect family even as it isolates him from the rest of his village.
I can’t pretend to understand the entirety of Midsommar, I must confess Hereditary’s madness post-grandma’s death was much more comprehensible and simpatico, but the picture of the godlike face, in the forest still haunts me.
Perhaps the grim expression of the agrarian deity is its fertility facet? That when the Hargan ancestors decided to turn away from their Viking raids and exchange their swords for ploughshares, this became a more apt god. If so, I look forward to a better story of horror by the unforgiving light of day.
Karl R. De Mesa is a journalist and writer who co-hosts the fight culture podcast DSTRY.MNL and the dark arts and entertainment podcast Kill the Lights. His latest book is Radiant Void, a collection of essays and non-fiction available from Visprint Inc.