Cultural beliefs and practices play a huge role in Ari Aster’s “Midsommar.”

By Jason Guyer

One of the most surprising films from last year was Ari Aster’s “Hereditary.” “Hereditary” starred the wonderful Toni Collette in one of her most powerful performances. Aster’s first major film, “Hereditary” made him an up and coming horror film auteur.

“Midsommar” cements him as one and puts him in direct contention with Jordan Peele as a horror master. The premise of “Midsommar” is three-fold and contains three important styles and parts.

In parts, “Midsommar” is a psychologically-abusive and emotionally-draining breakup film, especially on the male part of the relationship. In other parts, the film is a sinister travel film, à la “Hostel” or other films like it. The most intriguing premise or form that “Midsommar” takes is that the film is often a culturally explorative film.

“Midsommar” stars Florence Pugh as Dani. The audience finds Dani dealing with a poor boyfriend and familial worries and troubles surrounding her bipolar sister. In the opening 25 to 30 minutes, Dani is forced to deal with trauma. Dani’s familial trauma in “Midsommar” is the best 30 minutes of the film. Those 30 minutes contain the best acting in the film, the best shots of the film, the pacing of the film is fast and intense. Aster creates some of the most emotionally intense and visually intense scenes in film history.

There is one caveat to those first 30 minutes of the film, they have little to do with the last 2 hours of the film.

The first 30 minutes of the film set up how fraught Dani’s relationship is and it sets up Dani as the lead character and it sets up the other characters who play major roles in “Midsommar.” The brilliance behind those opening 30 minutes, even though story wise they are unnecessary, is the contrast the opening 30 have against the rest of the film. The opening 30 are dark, depressing, and emotionally fraught. This sets up the travel and escapism aspect to “Midsommar.”

As Dani wants to escape her current reality, and so does the viewer at this point, both Dani and the viewer joins what should be a fun trip to Sweden with Dani and her boyfriend. The pair, along with a few other friends, travel to a Swedish midsummer festival, hence the name “Midsommar” which is Swedish for midsummer.

Midsummer in Sweden is the time of the midnight sun. The midnight sun is a phenomenon that happens in the summer in places on the planet that are north of the Arctic Circle or south of the Antarctic Circle. The one in the Arctic Circle happens in June and the one in the Antarctic Circle happens in December. Basically, the midnight sun is when the sun is visible, barring weather, for a complete 24 hours. The setting alone creates an interesting juxtaposition against the darkness the main character and the audience gets to see in the first 30 minutes of the film. The contrast is a terrifying but beautiful experience.

When the group gets to Sweden everything is bright, colorful, and beautiful. This begins Aster’s descent into depicting a culture, one that starts innocent and cultural and dives into misery and madness.

For those whose notion of a horror film is slash and gore, those horror and gross out moments are there but Aster’s films may not be for you. This is because Aster’s brilliance in both “Hereditary” and “Midsommar” is the psychological horror and that is what he concentrates on.

The ritual suicide scene is not about the horror or gore of the moment. No, the brilliance is how Aster makes the main character see and deal with the horrors of the moment due to her own experiences. Those types of scenes need great casting and the lead acting choices made by Aster in both, “Hereditary” and “Midsommar” are brilliant.

Toni Collette stole the show with her performance in “Hereditary.” In “Midsommar,” Florence Pugh steals the audience's heart and in more ways than one. Pugh carries every weight the film asks of her: the emotion of the first 30 minutes, the subtle questioning and discomfort of the middle, and the intensity and horror of the end, all the while playing a grieving daughter, a mentally and emotionally abused girlfriend who is figuring her boyfriend and his motives out, and playing a tourist at the center of a commune’s drug-addled and horrifying rituals.

Pugh carries it all and delivers for the audience, and I doubt the film would have been the same without her. She adds depth and range to her acting abilities and resume with “Midsommar,” especially on the heels of her performance in the funny and fantastic film “Fighting with Family.”

Florence Pugh may steal the show and rightfully she should as the lead in the film but there are other great performances in “Midsommar.” Jack Reynor plays the boyfriend, a truly detestable character. Reynor was right for the role of the mental and emotionally abusive boyfriend. Although it is hard to see the range of Reynor as an actor, he brings a certain awe-shucks feeling to role that could make a viewer feel bad for him by the end of “Midsommar.” Certainly not this viewer, but one may.

Reynor plays the boyfriend who is mentally or emotionally abusive but who makes people feel like he is actually the “true” victim. The type who uses his own plight as an excuse for it and treats his abusiveness as a product of situations and not as a character flaw, even though he continually chooses to do and say mentally and emotionally abusive things.

The boyfriend character, Christian, is the baby-faced white male who leans on his privilege for gain. The Christian character reminds the viewer of the abuser or the rapist who leans into the “it was their fault” routine and uses the “I am a good boy” defense. Christian is and should be an unlikable character but Aster forces the audience to come to terms with a few things regarding Christian and Dani by the end of the film.

There are other good actors who fill out the core of the traveling group of friends. These of course are the characters who meet their demise throughout “Midsommar.” Will Poulter plays the character of Mark. Mark is the mouthpiece of the group. However, Mark becomes relatable as the “dumb” American archetype. Mark accidentally and maybe a little ignorantly goes against the commune’s beliefs and culture and that is something the commune does not take lightly and Mark pays with his life.

The cultural aspects — Mark’s cultural insensitivity as an American — is what makes “Midsommar” so intriguing. Aster’s “Midsommar” is very slow paced through the center of the film, and the center of the film is where the traveling Americans take in the Swedish/communal culture.

To be honest, the film is two and a half hours long and could be called too long. Realistically Aster could have cut a half hour from the film. However, the cuts most likely would have come from the middle of the film where the the culture and beliefs of the commune are on display and meticulously thought out by Aster. Cutting these scenes would speed the pace of the film and give the film more of a horror film feel but it would make the film worse. The slow down from the opening minutes and the slow pacing of the middle of the film amplify the end of it.

The viewer is metaphorically punched in the face with fear, emotion, and sadness in the first 30 minutes and the film brightens and becomes this cultural slog of minute but interesting details. The cultural aspect is needed to explain the situation the film puts its characters into and to ultimately help explain an astonishing and confusing ending.

Aster also took the time to hide and reveal the film and its plot through the cultural exposition of the film. The writings on the wall of the sleeping quarters are in the native language of the commune and if you pay attention Aster has put many plot reveals in that language. When a director takes that amount of time and detail with a film and its plot, it should be appreciated.

Aster created a piece of art that falls just short of a masterpiece. The reason it falls just short of a masterpiece? “Midsommar” is just too damn long. Yes, I get the irony there.

There are just parts that will bore the majority of the audience. In the theater there were a few moments where the audience could be heard rustling and complaining. There were even a few walk-outs. Although, I truly believe the film would be worse without the bore and the culturally-bound middle of the film, it still bored many, many people. To reach masterpiece status Aster would have had to reconcile this. Aster did build a truly wondrous experience that challenges the viewer.

Ari Aster creates a unique and visually arresting film where his talent for filmmaking shows through. Aster’s talent can be seen in both “Hereditary” and “Midsommar.” The experience of watching that talent is all a viewer could need or want. I look forward to his next endeavor and in the fight with Jordan Peele for best horror auteur, point Aster.


Jason Guyer is an avid moviegoer and works in the graphics department at the Eagle Times. For questions or comments he can be emailed at guyerj@eagletimes.com

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