Midsommar (Director’s Cut)

US/Sweden (2019) Dir. Ari Aster

Some things are best left alone. Curiosity may get the better of you but fighting it is the most prudent thing you can do. There is a reason why people are afraid of the unknown and why this isn’t always a bad thing. And most importantly of all, don’t go to Sweden during the summer.

Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) is a college student struggling to cope in the wake of the recent murder-suicide of her sister and parents, getting little emotional support from her self-absorbed boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). When Dani learns Christian is planning to take a trip to Sweden with college friends Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), Josh (William Jackson Harper), and Mark (Will Poulter), Christian is forced to invite her along too.

The group arrive at the commune of Hårga in Hälsingland, where orphan Pelle grew up, in time for the Midsommar festival which occurs every 90 years. At first, they embrace the bucolic lifestyle, until they witness a disturbing suicide ceremony. Dani wants to leave the commune but Christian and Josh want to stay, as they are there to research their thesis on Swedish culture. Perhaps they should have listened to Dani.

Ari Aster turned many heads with his horror debut Hereditary and from all accounts, his follow up was to be in the same vein. In fact, whilst Midsommar does have some truly horrific and upsetting imagery in it, any comparisons between the two films is merely thematic – both are triggered by a traumatic loss of life and both involve bizarre rituals, but it ends there.

For a more accurate comparison, the obvious one is the British classic The Wicker Man as both are set in remote, self-contained locales featuring indoctrinated cults for whom Pagan philosophy is their life and outsiders should beware their trespassing. Midsommar differs by exploring the Scandinavian take on these curious ancient beliefs, with many of the featured ceremonies and procedures exaggerated version of genuine practices.

Before Dani and co. arrive in Hårga, we are introduced to the cast at a crucial time for Dani, having received a dark cryptic e-mail from her sister, then discovering she has taken her own life and her parents’ lives through carbon monoxide poisoning. Utterly distraught, Dani turns to Christian for support, just as he was planning to dump her for being too needy.

Evidence continue to mount as to what sort of jerk Christian is, wanting to bail on Dani to go to a party but she decides to go with him. If she hadn’t, she wouldn’t have found out about the Sweden trip, and guilts Christian into asking her along by way of a change of scenery for her. This upsets Mark who thinks they are going for a drugs and sex tour, whilst Josh is doing a thesis on ancient European cultures, but they acquiesce anyway.

Hårga might a visual cliché with its verdant landscapes, idyllic rural verve, smiley blonde Swedes in white frocks dancing among the grassy reeds, and absence of modernity and technology, but the cinematography from Pawel Pogorzelski makes it all so inviting. The language barrier is an interesting facet, not just because many of the commune denizens don’t appear bi-lingual but when they do speak it is often in bespoke riddles.

Obviously, with a film like this, it is not a case of if something bad happens but when it happens and Aster takes his time in building up to the first significant shock, employing small teases like a mushroom trip Dani goes on that evokes surreal, disturbing thoughts of her family in their final moments.

When the first upsetting scene arrives it really does jolt us like an electric shock, thanks to the expert set up where we can see it coming but, like the aghast onlookers, feel helpless in being unable to stop it. This incident forces a young London couple Simon (Archie Madekwe) and Connie (Ellora Torchia) to pack up their bags and leave, but before they can Simon mysteriously disappears, and later on, so does Connie.

I won’t go any further because I’ll end up recapping the entire film and this Director’s Cut is 170-minutes long, some 25 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, which is a lot to cover. I can say that the events at Hårga become more bizarre, more frightening, and definitely more horrific but like any cult where psychotropic intake is part of daily life, the will to escape is slowly nullified whether anyone notices it or not.

Aster is clearly a confrontational filmmaker but makes it hard to tell if he is out to simply shock or if he has something to say. The attention to detail displayed in the construction and execution of the rituals shows he is not keen to go half-cocked at anything, adding tacit dread to the verisimilitude of the commune’s actions. Everything is carried out with such conviction we wonder if it is fictional or not, it is that convincing.

This is as much down to Aster’s exacting and acute direction and the commitment from his cast, headed by the amazingly versatile Florence Pugh, whose naturalness as Dani is the fulcrum for our investment in the horror of this journey. If only she could decide if her accent is meant to be English or American, but her performance is so compelling she is forgiven for this minor infringement.

However, for a film this long, not all the characters are that well fleshed out – Christian is a grade A douche from start to finish, whilst Josh almost feels like the token black man. At least Will Poulter makes sex-obsessed Mark entertaining with his on target essaying of this vexing pillock.

Whatever was excised for the theatrical cut of Midsommar may have made a difference to how people viewed it but in this extended form, I can say that Aster has delivered one of the most powerfully unsettling and visceral “non-horror” horror films for the ages. An unforgettably hypnotic yet terrifying experience.