Depending on your view of the world, Midsommar -- the 2019 horror movie from Ari Aster, who directed the equally sinister Hereditary -- will either leave you with a feeling of completeness or absolute revulsion.
Such is the intent of Aster's hallucinogenic, strange, fantastical movie, a mix of stylized shots and naturalistic images straight from Ingrid Bergman and the creepiness of a cult movie that borrows from the burrowing-under-your-skin knife blade of The Wicker Man, the granddaddy of religious cult horror. But your view of all this madness amid verdant Swedish fields depends on your worldview.
Midsommar can be viewed as a sort of matriarchal revenge flick, where a woman scorned by an unresponsive lover and male pigheadedness falls into the arms of a cult that feeds on sacrificial rites to cleanse the spirit. The movie's lead, Dani (played with emotional depth by Florence Pugh), follows a group of anthropology students to rural Sweden for an annual summer rite by a group of outcasts that includes a fellow student, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). She is angry at her cold boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), who cannot nurture her after a tragedy at home and performs little transgressive acts, such as forgetting her birthday. She is met with a cultish group of women who bring her quickly into their secret society, culminating in her crowning as the May Queen of the festival. More on that later.
Or the movie can be seen as an act of healing for Dani, who has lost her parents and sister in an unspeakable act at home and is still openly grieving and crying whenever the tragedy is mentioned. Facing frigidness from her boyfriend and friend group, she finds redemption in the long grasses of a Swedish outpost and its inhabitants. But that redemption comes at a very heavy price ... literal sacrifices must be made by the cult to rid themselves of evil spirits to promote good health.
Midsommar can also be viewed as a movie of gore and shock for its own sake, turning the stomach along with your viewpoint on the movie's goals. Even though most of the sacrificial acts happen offstage, there are rituals such as that of a 72-year-old couple jumping to their deaths off a cliff face early in the film. As a male priest suggests, it is proper for the old to die to make way for younger replacements. Cult members help a death along by bashing one of the jumpers in the head with a mallet.
And there is plenty more, including scenes of individuals being skinned alive, hung up like a bloody, stuffed eagle and burned. Get out the popcorn and bring the family to this Swedish summer party. Just kidding, of course.
But it is Pugh's Dani that holds the somewhat muddled proceedings together and makes you care. I felt her pain at losing her family, friends and lovers, her aloneness at being rejected even as she is going through her own depression and grief. She wears her existential anxiousness on her face at all times, a Van Gogh painting where something is off-kilter even on its placid surface.
Which is why I view this picture as a quest for healing and absolution in all its warped forms that a brutal cult can bring out. Where it differs from The Wicker Man, Rosemary's Baby and other films of pagan religious cults is its humanity. You want Dani to be able to move on with her life amid the pain, be able to live with herself once again. This trip to the Swedish countryside may not be good for her sanity but it does feed her soul.
Yet, healing in this movie is nothing like the finding of forgiveness or Christian gratitude that other, warmer pictures would proffer. She is basically gaslighted, put on a pedestal after winning a contest to become the cult's May Queen after staying on her feet longer than other contestants in a dance around a maypole. She is adorned with a crown of flowers and driven in a carriage to view her charges. When Dani cries out in grief over her former life, her female companions scream in grief along with her. She has become one of them.
The most troubling aspects of the film concern her relationship with Christian, her boyfriend. Even his name is a more than a tad symbolic -- he joins in to learn about the Satanic-like cult but is never part of them (or of Dani's life, for that matter). He, like the other anthopology students studying the group, is an outsider, a foreigner who is not really welcomed or accepted. This is some form of parable here about xenophobia and fear of foreigners that is taken to its extreme, most tragic end. Let's just say that Christian and his friends become part of the sacrificial rites they have come to observe and not in a happy way.
In the latter third of the movie, Midsommar moves into troubling territory as Dani becomes more attached to a group whom she initially is wary of and is less enamored of Christian. Meanwhile, her boyfriend becomes the breeder in a mating ceremony with another female that is attended in a temple by naked women who dance with fire sticks and encourage the sexual union. The scene is beautifully shot, with dissolving images that bleed into each other and a mix of darkness and lighted lamps leading to a feeling of foreboding.
What happens at the end of the film will not be revealed but suffice to say that it will get you talking and is highly controversial. The stakes are high for Dani and Christian and the finale does not easily resolve the tension. Or maybe it does in its own way. Judge for yourself.
And see this movie if you do not mind a few nightmares or a bit of gruesomeness thrown into this psychological character study. Healing comes at a very heavy cost.