Like Ari Aster’s 2018 directorial debut Hereditary, Midsommar is a slow burn, a uniquely crafted horror that demands insight—answers to questions like, “What the hell did I just watch?” In Midsommar there are plenty of questions, subtle foreshadowing (or not-so-subtle, i.e., a tapestry that lays out a young maiden’s unsanitary attempt to woo her love interest) and allusions to Swedish traditional midsummer ceremonies and Viking torture practices to keep you theorizing for days.
The fabled (albeit disturbing) fairy tale of Midsommar begins as many do: with a tragedy that propels our protagonist into a quest for self-discovery. When her sister kills herself and her parents in a murder-suicide using rerouted carbon monoxide, Dani Ardor (portrayed by Florence Pugh) seeks consolation from her emotionally unavailable boyfriend Christian Hughes (Jack Reynor). The couple, along with friends, travels to a remote village in Sweden, participating in a festival that happens every 90 years only to discover themselves among a pagan cult.
Midsommar is as much about grief as it is a bad relationship—Aster himself calls it a “break-up movie.” When Dani finds herself thousands of miles from home in a strange land with even stranger people, she’s still processing her trauma. In a way, it feels like her relationship and her codependency stifle her ability to grieve. Her boyfriend tells her she’s overreacting to her sister’s erratic behaviors; her mourning during the opening credits is encased within a snowstorm, left unvalidated by a silent Christian. Despite the anomalies of the commune, its inbred and deformed oracle, its ättestupa ritual, oh, and that bear just hanging out in a cage, Dani is welcomed by the people and the land. At some points—with the aid of hallucinogenic drugs—she even becomes part of the land as it lives and breathes around her. When she becomes the May Queen after a dancing competition, the commune eats when she eats, when she cries and screams and howls, her people do too. It speaks to how cults find their people, but also to how we find new partners, someone to welcome and validate and hold us. By the time the closing credits roll, Dani is silent, smiling as memories of her former life burn to the ground.
Midsommar is more quietly unsettling than overtly horrifying, using long tracking shots (with cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski) reminiscent of the brooding psychological suspense of The Shining and Get Out, and it works. Where Hereditary shocked and mortified, Midsommar is almost whimsical in its approach, making what it has to say about grief and love all the more disturbing.