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Review: you might leave before “Midsommar” ends

Back in theatres is the director’s cut of Ari Aster’s second full-length feature film “Midsommar.”  The folk-horror film is filled to the brim with truly disturbing material that is hard to sit through even once. Beyond the shock is a simple relationship horror story.

After the trauma of losing her parents and sister to a dreadful murder-suicide, Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) joins her emotionally distant boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his fellow anthropology grad students Mark, Josh and Pelle on a trip to Sweden to partake in midsommar festivities at an ancestral commune. The fascinating community unfolds to the bunch as a macabre, incestuous cult.

Though everyone in the audience sees it coming, the commune isn’t a cult at first glance. Christian and his friends are entering upon the invitation from their foreign friend Pelle. The peculiar village in the daylight, with abundant country and white gowns, is pleasantly inviting. The precise and unique actions of all the members and religious codes of conduct are tempting to the anthropology students. It’s only when the frightening rituals begin that they truly understand what they’ve stumbled into. 

If you walked into a theatre and picked this film for no other reason than the title, you’d be in for quite a shock. For the nearly three hours the film glides through, it dances past the line of disturbing for the ritualistic violence, grisly images, and strong sexual content that heap the plot. The commune’s practices of senicide, in such a graphic skull-bashing manner, and incestuous heritage are completely unsettling. The third act goes so far with the sexual content and gruesome carcasses that it was unsurprising to see an empty theater by the end.

Midsommar” does find some substantial solace from the stomach-turning visuals in the complete toxicity that is Dani and Christian’s relationship. Dani’s emotionally damaged state leads her to cling to Christian and develop an even more toxic relationship; Christian’s hesitant invitation for her to join their trip to Sweden allowed him to gaslight Dani and keep her in check. His continual manipulation and faux concern string Dani along. As her only relationship dissipates, Dani is left vulnerable to the commune’s induction that provides what she needs: a family. With a “family” now by her side, Dani lets go of Christian, albeit by sacrificing him to the gods in a burning temple, with a small but certain grin.

The film was recently re-released in an unrated director’s cut that includes an additional 24 minutes of footage that comprised Aster’s original vision. The changes in the director’s cut are not essential or game-changing, but serve to embellish the commune’s various ceremonies and reassert the nature of Dani and Christian’s relationship. An additional scene detailing a ceremonial suicide fake-out is especially tense, validating the non-rating. 

What the director’s cut might suggest about the excessive use of mature content is that the movie’s only real purpose was to do what horror movies do best: scare us. Not only that, but the director seemed to have wanted to induce fear by disturbing the audience so much that they wouldn’t even be able to sit through the film.

And while Aster takes full advantage of gore and graphic content, he shies away from common jump-scares used in most modern horror movies. The more mature horror techniques employed are impressive as this is only his second full-length feature film. His previous work, the 2018 film “Hereditary” was also a horror film that played hard into shock value. Similarly, the graphic violence was more utilized, however, jump-scares played a minor role. Aster also formulated his story similarly in the two: both examine a relationship by embedding it in this niche graphic horror genre. In “Midsommar” we observe a deteriorating romantic relationship, whereas “Hereditary” examines a distant mother-daughter relationship. Playing off of common relationships grounds the stories before all hell breaks loose and the viewer is throttled through endless violence. 

 Photo Credit: A Maypole is featured in “Midsommar.” Photo courtesy of Unsplash.