Available: Amazon Prime streaming; Amazon and many other sources for rent or purchase. Just Watch information here.
Warning: this review contains spoilers—designed to keep people from seeing the film.
In February 1905, the eminent Johns Hopkins physician William Osler delivered a valedictory address, which he titled “The Fixed Period,” after a novel by Anthony Trollope. The novel featured a college scheme to retire professors at 60 when there would be, as Osler put it, “a peaceful departure by chloroform.” Osler had no plans to chloroform the elderly, but he was convinced that men over 60 were useless.
For members of the Swedish “Midsommar” cult the age of uselessness is 72.
For members of the Swedish “Midsommar” cult—which holds ceremonies called “Harga” every 90 years for 9 days in mid-summer—the age of uselessness is a more reasonable 72, but their system of eliminating the aged is less so: once chosen, the oldsters soar off a high cliff to land on a flat rock. If they’re not dead on arrival, several people with a big hammer take turns hitting them in the face until they are. “I will be joyful,” says matriarch Siv (Gunnel Fred) of when she turns 72, “we give our lives as a gesture before it can be spoiled.” Oh, and an unpopular guest—and an unlikeable character—is burned alive in a bear skin, while the only character worth caring about, Dani (Florence Pugh), breaks into a broad smile.
Dani’s conversion and that smile can work only if Dani has a backstory that makes her vulnerable and the cult world—and its unctuous emissary, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren)—attractive. And boy, does she have one. In an early scene, her sister asphyxiates herself and their parents. Dani has a boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor) and, presumably, he could be of help getting her through this period of grief, trauma and isolation. But, despite his name, Christian is an unremittingly weak, selfish jerk—which is why he ends up in the bear skin, and why Dani—ever needy—is smiling.
Escape attempts loom as the only hope for making this filmic exercise something other than tedious.
Most of the film takes place in the cult/commune, where everyone but a half dozen American guests are in white suits and dresses. The Swedes frolic in grassy meadows and administer drugs to the Americans, which makes the latter compliant participants and, with two exceptions, unable to summon the will to leave or to try to escape—a serious problem for the film, because escape attempts loom as the only hope for making this filmic exercise something other than tedious.
In the abstract, the commune might seem a fascinating space: all sorts of curious, and sometimes horrific, customs to observe (two of the guys are anthropology graduate students and are eager to study the group), weird foods to eat, a purposefully inbred child whose finger paintings are interpreted as symbols, and that yellow building down the valley that you’re not supposed to enter. So odd are the leaders that one is called Father Odd; Siv reminds one of Nurse Ratched; and the ready-to-be-pregnant Maja (Isabelle Grill) has echoes of Carrie.
The film bears—though it hardly deserves—some analyzing. It could be seen as a #MeToo horror film. Dani’s slacker boyfriend is encouraged to dump her (she calls him too much, overly worried about her sister and parents) by his roommates who include Josh (William Jackson Harper), the serious anthropology PhD student from whom Christian—too lazy to think up his own—steals his thesis idea; the highly sexualized Mark (Will Poulter); and Pelle, the cloying Swede. Christian lets Dani down at every turn, not having the spine to stand up for her or to anyone else.
The undeserving men get their just rewards.
The undeserving men get their just rewards. Mark, who pisses on the ancestral tree, is ritually strung up; Josh, who violates the privacy strictures of the cult, goes missing; and Christian, well, what will Dani do when—trussed up in a suit of flowers so enormous she looks and moves like Humpty Dumpty—she is forced to choose between sacrificing him or a cult member? Think bear skin.
“Midsommar” was nominated for multiple awards around the globe. Most of those understandably were for Florence Pugh, who dominates the film as Dani. She’s hardly recognizable as Amy from 2019’s “Little Women,” for which she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. The cinematography is stunning, resulting in nominations for Pawel Pogorzelski. Less understandable are the several nominations (mostly in sci-fi and horror categories) garnered by American director and writer Ari Aster.
There’s not enough—it must be said—not enough “horror.”
“Midsommar” is filled with too much mid-level anxiety of the “what’s-going-on” variety (as when Mark urinates on that sacred tree, Dani wins a competitive Maypole dance, or we begin to understand that the outsiders have been brought in to revitalize the gene pool). There’s not enough—it must be said—not enough “horror.”
Not a horror film. At times horrific. Mostly just horrible.
Director: Ari Aster
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Gunnel Fred, Isabelle Grill
Runtime: 148 minutes