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Movie Review

A stay at a drug-filled pagan commune in rural Sweden might not be everyone’s ideal vacation. But Dani knows she could use a good trip.

Admittedly, Dani’s pain goes far deeper than any vacation can salve. She lost her whole family in a horrific murder-suicide just months before; that’s not something you recover from easily. For Dani, the grief can tear through her like a freight train.

When she learns her (rather distant) boyfriend, Christian, is planning to leave her for a long trip to Sweden with his friends—ostensibly an educational trip to a backwoods colony of paganists—she feels one more person is leaving her. So, reluctantly, he invites her along.

Dani knows she’s horning in on her boyfriend's plans. But Pelle, whose village they’re going to, seems to welcome her company. And she hopes that the trip might somehow help repair the damage in her relationship with Christian. Maybe a new place, with new experiences—new people—can help her fix, or at least help her forget, the horrors she’s gone through. Even if it’s just for a little while.

Then again, what if new people and new experiences only bring about new horrors?

Positive Elements

Dani isn’t just grieving. She feels deeply alone. Her family’s gone. Her boyfriend seems to have lost interest in her. And in Dani’s eyes at times, this Swedish village seems to offer her what she needs most: a caring and deeply intimate community.

She’s not wrong. For all of the horrors the village residents hide, they do care deeply about those in the community's folds … even if that love manifests itself in some seriously twisted ways. The movie reminds us that tight communities can be beautiful, supportive things. But the story also warns that when we’re a part of such a community, we risk buying into values that can become almost incestuously warped.

That commitment to honest intimacy is most vividly mirrored in Pelle, perhaps. He reminds Dani that he lost his parents, too. The village saved him, in a respect. “I never had the chance to feel lost because I had a family,” he tells her. That village, he insists, was his real family.

As for Christian, can we give him credit for the half measures he offers to Dani in her time of grief? He doesn’t leave her in her moment of greatest vulnerability, which is something I guess. He (reluctantly) invites her to Sweden, which seems a nice thing to do. He’s like a little boy who drags his feet cleaning his room: at least he cleans it.

Spiritual Content

Pelle’s village is a pagan commune—one that observes pre-Christian ceremonies away from the world’s prying, judgmental eyes. They practice magic, in a sense—what they (and perhaps some others) might characterize as “white magic.” After all, their Midsommer celebration is all about sending the “Dark One” back to the blackness from whence it came. But as we shall see later, the rituals they practice are far from benign.

The interiors of most of the buildings are covered in drawings and illustrations, some of which seem to be instructions for spells. (We’ll talk about an illustrated fertility spell in the next section.) But the community's religion has a written, runic component, too: They’re festooned on almost every possible surface, it seems. They’re drawn on walls and ceilings, carved in stones and stitched in the commune’s white garments. A rune symbolizing love is engraved in a stick, and the bearer stuffs it under someone’s bed as part of a spell.

But most importantly, these runes are found in sacred books—hundreds of them. We’re told that this age-old religion is constantly being updated by prophets within the community—often mentally disabled individuals and the products of inbreeding. Why? Because the community believes that their impairment opens them up to important unseen realities. (The current prophet, whose face is deformed by birth defects, apparently doesn’t have the wherewithal to write; he simply smears colors in the most recent scripture book, and the community’s elders interpret what they think he meant.)

A center of worship seems to be a flower-festooned cross with rings hanging from the crossbars. That said, there's no indication that the cross is related to Christianity at all. The young women in the village dance around the pole until they drop, symbolizing an ancient myth. (According to the original story, all but one danced until they died. Here, they drink some sort of intoxicating hallucinogen that makes them a little bit uncertain on their feet—and far more likely to fall over laughing should they run into each other.) The “winner” becomes the festival queen and is tasked with blessing the community’s land. (Grain, meat and a raw egg are then buried in a hole to ensure the soil’s fertility.)

But, really, almost every aspect of the village’s life is sacred and highly ritualized. Including—at least in one instance—sex.

Sexual Content

We see an extended and extraordinarily graphic sexual ritual. I'm not going to go into much detail, other than to note that the ritual includes an explicit sex act and involves multiple unclothed women and a naked man. We see pretty much everything on everyone here.

The man and woman at the center of the rite are reportedly in perfect astrological harmony. The young woman (who looks to be in her late teens) has just been given permission by the village to have sex.

When the rite is finished, the man runs from the room—still, of course, in his birthday suit—and dashes through the village completely exposed, searching for some sort of cover. (He covers his privates for part, but not all, of his sprint.)

His is not the only guy’s anatomy we see. Another man staggers into the village’s library without pants.

The most obvious illustrated spell that audiences witness being cast is clearly some sort of love spell. We see some graphic drawings clearly depicting a woman's anatomy. Pubic hair, menstrual blood and food all play intermingled parts in the spell as well.

Mark, one of Christian’s friends on the trip, repeatedly encourages Christian to break up with Dani so he can sleep around with other women—telling him that he could be with “a chick who actually likes sex.” He repeatedly makes comments about how beautiful Swedish women are, and wonders why they are so attractive. Josh, the doctoral anthropology candidate, suggests that it’s because their forebears, the Vikings, likely dragged all the most beautiful women back home when they ransacked a village—giving the nation some particularly appealing genes.

Mike and Connie, also foreign guests for the Midsommar activities, are engaged. We learn that they came at the behest of Pelle’s brother, who once had designs on Connie. We hear conversations about incest. Infidelity is a huge plot point (even though none of the characters seem to be actually married).

Violent Content

Perhaps it’s obvious that this little Swedish commune holds some pretty dark secrets. We’re talking Saw-level of torture and carnage here. And everything in this section could brush up against slightly spoilery territory.

We’re not even in Sweden when the first deaths occur. Dani’s sister kills three people—including herself—via carbon monoxide poisoning. Her parents seem to have died peacefully in their sleep: They lie in bed, side by side, looking as if they’re already packed in caskets. But Dani's sister went to more extreme measures to kill herself—duct taping a flexible pipe over her nose and mouth, with the other end fastened to the exhaust pipe of a car. Her corpse is found sitting in her room, eyes wide open.

The Swedish village/commune looks wonderfully bucolic until the Midsommar ceremonies start. Soon, we learn the villagers don’t believe in allowing their elders to die naturally. Instead, they “give” their lives back to the earth while (in accordance with their faith) they’re still worth giving.

After a lavish banquet, two oldsters thus sacrifice themselves—hurling themselves off a cliff while the villagers and horrified visitors watch. One dies immediately: She bounces off an altar-like rock, her face now a jagged bone shards and mush. The other isn’t so lucky: He lands on his feet, snapping his legs off, and is still very much alive. As the villagers ceremonially moan and scream in time with the man’s own wails—perhaps to drown out his agony, perhaps to share in it?—a man steps forward with a huge mallet and hits him on the head. A few others ceremonially take part, too, until the man’s skull is more like pudding.

Then it gets worse.

Several visitors disappear: One guy gets clubbed on the head, the blow landing so hard that it exposes a bit of either skull or brain. As he groans inhumanly, he’s dragged away, leaving a trail of blood. Another vanishes, but his face returns—serving as a mask for someone else. We see a glimpse of a leg sticking out of a garden. Several people are burned alive, and one screams in pain as the fire consumes his legs and arms. (Another, drugged and paralyzed, sits helplessly as the skin around his face cracks and chars.) One man is suspended in a chicken coop, hung from wires as if he was Superman. His eyes have been removed and replaced with flowers. His back has been flayed and broken open, and his lungs have been removed from the man's torso. They, too, are suspended, and they continue to obviously suck in air.

Corpses are displayed in all manner of horrific, ceremonial forms. One has had his arms and legs replaced with branches, while more branches have been stuffed in its mouth. A bear is sacrificed offscreen: We see villagers work on its hairy body, though—the creature cut open to expose its innards. An elder patiently teaches the children in attendance how to remove the intestines without damaging them. The bear serves as a suit for still another sacrificial victim.

Crude or Profane Language

About 35 f-words and five s-words. We also hear “crap,” “h---,” “p-ss” and “d--k.” God’s name is misused about 10 times, and Jesus’ name is abused four.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Drugs, particularly hallucinogens, play a huge part in the life of the commune. Pelle distributes some hallucinogenic mushrooms before they even arrive, and from there on, the drugs become part of the group's ceremonial rhythm. Women drink some drugged liquid before a ritualistic dance. A man’s given something to drink before he’s led into a ritualistic sexual act. (The drug, he’s told, dampens inhibitions and increases sexual energy.)

We see the drugs’ effects mainly through Dani’s eyes. Sometimes she sees roots or tendrils meshing with her skin, as if she’s literally becoming one with nature. When she sits in a throne of foliage, the leaves rise to greet her touch as the flowers behind her move, as if breathing. Some seem to wink.

But she has bad experiences, too: In one such trip, she flashes back (or imagines) her parents sleeping in front of the TV as her sister gives her an enigmatic look. In a dream, she sees them at the bottom of a cliff (where she’s seen people die in real life), her sister propped up against an altar-like rock. She borrows sleeping pills to sleep, too, and early on pops a couple of pills that could be antianxiety meds.

Dani, Christian and her friends go to a party where they drink beer. They drink beer elsewhere, too. Some characters smoke and vape. Drugs seem to have the power to paralyze. Two people are given the sap from a yew to ingest, which they’re told will keep them from feeling pain or fear. (That proves to be a lie, at least for one of them.)

Other Negative Elements

All of the people whom Dani hangs out with are, on some level, jerks. One relieves himself on an old tree where the ashes of the village’s ancestors are kept. Another takes pictures of a sacred book after being specifically told not to. Christian is, in some ways, the most duplicitous of the lot—filled with lies and half-truths that he uses to excuse his actions.

Obviously, the folks in the village are less than genuine, too. They’re like cannibals who invite someone to dinner without telling them they’re about to be the main course.

A couple of people vomit.

Conclusion

In an age in which the horror genre can generate critical acclaim and even Oscar noms, Midsommar aspires to be high art. But strip the film down, and it’s really just a slasher flick. The distance between the movie’s Swedish commune and Camp Crystal Lake isn’t as great as you might think.

Yes, Midsommar—director Ari Aster’s follow-up to the much-praised and deeply disturbing Hereditary—feels like an arthouse flick. Dani’s conflicted relationship with Christian feels critical and powerful. The movie’s pagan backdrop and counterintuitive sun-bleached setting adds an air of depth and menace. And as the movie leads us through its horrors, it takes its own laconic time.

But at its essence, Midsommar is the story of a bunch of young adults—not too far removed from their teens—who do terrible things and are punished in terrible ways. Urinate on a sacred tree? Take pictures of a sacred book? Have sex with someone you shouldn’t? You know they’re going to die. Beat for beat, this movie echoes the lowly teen slasher template.

In fact, what really separates Midsommar from, say, the Friday the 13th flicks isn’t as much its artistry: It’s the sex and gore. Sure, Jason could spill plenty of blood. But his murders tended to be quick, and he quickly moved on from. Here, the torture—and the camera—lingers. And as for the movie’s ritualistic sex scene, well …

For all that content, Midsommar isn’t actually all that scary. Instead, it leans into the real definition of the word horror. We watch and, instead of goosebumps or chills, we feel revulsion, as we might after an unintentional whiff of rotting meat. We’re meant to feel unsettled and disturbed—not frightened and exhilarated. We cover our eyes not to shield us from what might happen, but to help us recover from what already has.

For all its high-art pretentions, the meat of Midsommar is mainly about … meat. Carved, pawed, beaten, bludgeoned human meat, which loses any sense of humanity along the way.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

Florence Pugh as Dani; Jack Reynor as Christian; William Jackson Harper as Josh; Will Poulter as Mark; Vilhelm Blomgren as Pelle; Archie Madekwe as Simon; Ellora Torchia as Connie

Director

Ari Aster ( )

Distributor

A24

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

July 3, 2019

On Video

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Paul Asay

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults
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This Plugged In review contains information about graphic sexual or violent content. It is not suitable for all ages. Reader discretion is advised.
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