It’s always the girl who hears the bump in the attic. “What was that?” “It’s nothing, babe!” If horror heroines are built to register the film’s dangers, their boyfriends are frequently built to ignore them, to swat away fears with a tongue down the throat while the killer watches them from a cabin’s windows.
Midsommar builds on this tradition, because despite director Ari Aster’s violent remix of Sweden’s Midsummer celebrations, it’s essentially a film about a girl trying to get her boyfriend to listen to her in increasingly nightmarish circumstances. The film sets audiences up immediately to understand the dynamic of its two leads Dani and Christian: the latter wants to break up with the former, who finds her nagging and overly preoccupied with her suicidal sister. “Then you can date someone who actually likes sex,” Christian’s buddies say to him, nudging him to find a better piece of ass. But he miscalculates the extent to which Dani’s anxieties are misplaced (chill gaslighting, bro) and the two stay together after a family tragedy, one which would feel at home in Aster’s brutal first feature Hereditary.
Their already tethered relationship is strained further when a traumatized Dani invites herself on a boys weekend to Sweden which comes to fruition for semi-horny reasons (Mark, played by Will Poulter, wants to fuck some milkmaids) and semi-anthropological (Josh, played by The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper, is writing his thesis on midsummer traditions.) There’s a “no girls allowed” tension vibrating among the male players of the story, but it melts away when the group arrives in the hometown of Christian’s Swedish college buddy Pelle. Aster’s remote village atop idyllic green pastures is Brueghelian with the brightness turned way up: flirtatious girls in white smocks drink hallucinogenic dandelion teas like water; townspeople gleefully greet new visitors with a pan flute number as if they’re background characters in a Disney film; and women bake their pubic hair into cute meat pies to attract mates. Wait, what?
Slowly the rich, creepy mythology of this town unfolds. At almost two-and-a-half hours, the film tediously reveals these detailed rituals, from dancing competitions to mating ceremonies, and a terrifying, ordained suicide that is the first stop on the “something’s up with this town” ride for the non-Swedes brought to visit (of which I will only say, man that Ari Aster loves a close-up shot of a smashed-in head, doesn’t he?). The film is brimming with seriously dedicated world-building, including creepy illustrated histories dotting the village’s interiors that feel ripped from a Henry Darger book, but all the exposition doesn’t actually make for an engaging horror film.
Newcomers to the town are plucked off one by one, but their death scenes are largely left an eerie mystery, and you wonder why Aster didn’t include more of those and less Maypole dancing. The biggest problem facing Midsommar is that because it has an iconic predecessor (and arguable twin) in The Wicker Man, a film in which an unsuspecting outsider is sacrificed to harvest gods during an oversexed Pagan tradition, there is little surprise as to what Midsommar ultimately has in store for viewers.
But all of the bloody traditions here seem to be a backdrop for Aster’s real, chosen horror show, which is an insufferably drawn-out break-up. In the absence of a real family, Dani, played with a full, ugly-cry intensity by Florence Pugh, grasps onto Christian (Jack Reynor) as a landing spot for her grief. But he’s a total dud, a caricature of a clueless bro; after the group witnesses a death that shakes Dani, all he can muster is that it was “so shocking.” That said, Dani is a bit of a caricature herself despite her trauma. The couple exists in the film almost like a blank representation of every tortured couple on which to project and comment, not unlike a high-brow Reddit/Relationships post. I can just see it now: “My (23F) boyfriend (26M) took me to a disturbingly isolated Swedish village and didn’t listen to me when I thought all our friends were being murdered. Advice?”
With this tiny Swedish cult placing an emphasis on family and shared emotion (the members collectively scream and laugh to mimic each other’s feelings), Aster draws such obvious parallels between Dani’s clinging desire for love and the rhythms of this overly familial community that it can feel like you’re being hammered over the head with them, despite the fact that these people do love taking a hammer to a head. Midsommar may weigh far too heavy with drawn-out scenes of this weird cult, but the moral of Aster’s story is far simpler: just listen to your girlfriend, dude.
Midsommar hits theaters on Wednesday July 3.