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Review: MIDSOMMAR (2019)

I jumped at the chance to see Midsommar this week, not just because it had been a while since I’ve seen a horror movie in theatres. But also because catching a horror film that took place primarily in daylight seemed like a novel experience. The second film after Hereditary from director Ari Aster, Midsommar, takes place in Sweden during a midsummer outdoor festival in a remote Swedish village.

Midsommar is a film about an anxiety-riddled young American woman named Dani (Florence Pugh, Malevolent, The Falling) who is prone to panic attacks. While entrenched in her studies at university, she is suddenly slapped in the face with a horrific family tragedy. Her only support in all of this is Christian (Jack Reynor, On the Basis of Sex, Free Fire), her boyfriend. Trouble is, he was thinking about breaking up with her before her family tragedy, and breaking up with her now would look callous.

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So, he chooses to stay with her for now. His friends, all fellow grad students, are Josh (William Jackson Harper, They Remain, The Good Place), Mark (Will Poulter, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Josh has a passion for Swedish folklore and wants to write his thesis on it, just like Christian, which puts them in competition with each other. Mark, another grad student, makes chicks and beer his main focus.

Christian reveals to Dani eventually that the boys have been planning a bros’ trip to Sweden to take in this festival. When Dani finally hears of the trip after Christian has hidden the plans for so long, he feels obligated to invite her along. They’ve been invited by Pelle because this tiny Swedish village, more like a commune, is where he was raised. Pelle feels this is a perfect opportunity to introduce them to how he was brought up.

Folklore is a hell of a drug. Aster’s setup shots of the journey through the country will remind one of The Shining, and the upside-down camera shots are a foreshadowing of the mind-altering experience to come. The group arrives at the entrance to the festival, and are all promptly encouraged to take hallucinogens. They walk through the woods to enter through a gate in the shape of the sun, adorned with a Norse rune. There, they are warmly greeted by attractive, friendly Swedish people in traditional costumes, some of whom are playing pipes.

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These people are called the Hårga. Their white costume sees many variations. Most eye-catching of all is the complex embroidery patterns and runes sewn on the costumes. Indeed, their straightforward, even brisk manner is a little disconcerting, and puts some of the Americans off, making for some great moments of humor.

The group of five are also joined by an English couple named Connie and Simon, who have been invited to the festival by another Hårga community member. Meanwhile, the story focuses on Dani coming down off a bad trip off those mushrooms. She’s just trying to get her bearings in this new society while battling her own demons.

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The guests are shown to their sleeping quarters, which are shared with the rest of the commune. As Dani says, it looks cozy, but according to Pelle, this is how society lives. From birth to age 18, he explains, a person from the Hårga community is in the “spring” of their lives. Between age 18-36, they are in the “summer”. From 36-54, “fall”, and from 54-72, “winter”. What happens after winter at age 72? The group wants to know. The mild-mannered Pelle simply makes a slicing motion across his neck with a dramatic grin. “Death!” he answers cryptically in a stage whisper.

As far as horror movies go, Midsommar is not average, even if some of its story beats are familiar, predictable, and founded in classic horror. The well-researched, detailed, and lushly decorated setting is incredibly expedient in setting up both the plot and setting the mood of the film. It doesn’t really slam these traditional cultures, either. It’s all a matter of perspective. The Hårga are the same people both before and after the four Americans, guided by Pelle, are shown their customs. After all, this is a hotly anticipated celebration that the Hårga community themselves only experience every 90 years.

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Nighttime is only roughly two hours a day. Under the relentless sun, the guests begin to lose their grip on reality. Midsommar has very effective cinematography with great camera cuts, as well as efficient pacing. This made the film go quickly for me. The exposition was terrific, with the visuals lingering in my head long after the film’s end.

The supporting performances from the Americans are okay, but the people in this movie who really shine are Florence Pugh herself and all the Swedes. The breakup of Dani and her useless boyfriend Christian, as well as his relentless gaslighting, will bring a searingly painful reminder to anyone who’s endured a toxic relationship. Given that Aster was going through a breakup while making this film, his experience informs the storytelling.

For an unsettling and yet beautiful new experience of horror in the sunshine, check out Midsommar, currently in theatres from A24.

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