'Midsommar' is a beautiful nightmare that reinvents what horror can be (2023)

'Midsommar' is a beautiful nightmare that reinvents what horror can be (1)

A horror movie that's more beautiful than it is disturbingCredit: a24


It's hard to think of Midsommar as a horror movie.

No, not because we use genre-stigmatizing terms that anxiously reclassify great horror films as "thrillers" or "elevated horror" or "post-horror." And it's also not because of the film's unexpected comedic or even rom-com vibes.

What makes it difficult to talk about Midsommar as a horror movie is that, unlike writer/director Ari Aster's previous hit Hereditary, I did not feel horrified throughout. Instead the primary emotion Midsommar inspires is closer to a pure, compulsory awe, with nearly every scene exuding unbelievable beauty and elation.

It may say more about the critic writing this review than about the film itself, but Midsommar is one of the only horror movies to ever leave me wanting to live in its world forever, rather than relieved to escape it.

Midsommar does present a litany of what should be (or likely for most other people is) deeply disturbing imagery. It utilizes tropes classic to the genre, like an ill-fated trip to a remote location. And admittedly, it's now a cliché to describe the latest great new horror movie as genre-redefining.

Midsommar is one of the only horror movies to ever leave me wanting to live in its world forever.

But Aster's latest contribution truly earns the title by showing how manic joy can be just as terrifying as the dark, dank depressing places we usually associate with horror.

In the vaguest of terms, Midsommar follows a group of American graduate students who get a rare opportunity: Their Swedish friend invites them to join his small, remote village's midsummer festivities. Protagonist Dani (Florence Pugh) is the true outsider, as the sole girlfriend and last-minute tag-along to their guys' trip. She's also deep in grief after a recent family tragedy, which is the only reason she and longterm boyfriend have Christian (Jack Reynor) stayed in their strained relationship.

There is a clear emotional and visual divide between the first act of the film set in America, and the rest that takes place only in the pastoral, sun-soaked world of the midsummer festival.

'Midsommar' is a beautiful nightmare that reinvents what horror can be (2)

It's impossible to not relate to Dani's sweatpants lookCredit: a24

There are endless ways to interpret Midsommar. One way to view this contrast is as an embodiment of a bipolar episode, as Dani moves from a depressive mental state and into a manic psychotic break with delusions of grandeur. The movie plants the seed for this interpretation by explicitly mentioning bipolar disorder in the beginning.

Or we can expand its scope even further. Everything in Midsommar emphasizes a contrast between two polarizing forces, from its cinematography to its characters, plot, and setting. If Jordan Peele's similarly archetypal and mind-warping folk horror film Us centered around the disturbing parallel of mirror-image doubles, Aster's Midsommar is defined by the uncanny contradiction of opposites happening simultaneously.

Midsommar is defined by the uncanny contradiction of opposites happening simultaneously.

It's a nightmare happening in broad daylight. In its fairytale world, the monstrous is also the beautiful, death is a life-giving act, chaos is given order through meticulously symmetrical rituals, and the feminine dominates the masculine.

The pacing almost gives you vertigo through a contradictory sense of time. While the festival's events unfold with a dizzying, unstoppable momentum, you also feel as if time stopped altogether. Taking place during the brief summer period in Sweden when the sun never truly sets, the days become distinguishable from one another. You can imagine that either no time has passed, or that you are stuck in eternity as it devolves into endless entropy.

Even the movie's handling of realism and surrealism, each often bleeding into the other, captures that unsettling collision of opposites.

The group dynamics are grounded in an unmistakable realism. You know these types of people, or you've been Dani, or her and Christian's fraying relationship feels cringingly relatable. But as the festivities become increasingly deranged, Dani's friends and boyfriend continue to act like everything's normal. Effectively, the film turns the realism of its characters into yet another aspect of the film's surrealism.

'Midsommar' is a beautiful nightmare that reinvents what horror can be (3)

When the unusual starts to feel more real than the ordinaryCredit: a24

In short, the movie revels in perfect paradoxes. It captures the inherent contradiction of being alive, while always awaiting death.

Bipolarity is just one lens to interpret all of Midsommar's paradox of opposites, though. The manic-depressive symptoms embedded into the movie can also manifest during a different mind-warping mental state: grief.

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In her autobiography about her husband's death, Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking famously argued grief is like a state of temporary insanity, characterized by irrational thoughts and manic-depressive patterns.

It captures the inherent contradiction of being alive, while always awaiting death.

Like Midsommar, grief distorts time, causes delusions, strips the world of all sense and meaning, makes living feel like only a contrast to death, an absurd clash between the surreal cataclysm of losing a loved one and the mundanity of the everyday continuing like nothing happened.

Dani's descent into the absurd captures how loss distorts one's ability to perceive reality, making it impossible to distinguish between what is normal and what is unreal. The festival becomes like an extension of what's happening inside her, desperately trying to maintain order, meaning, and control in the face of the chaotic, meaningless, uncontrollable reality of death.

Her family isn't the only loss she's processing, either. Dani's breakup with Christian becomes increasingly inevitable as the festivities progress, and Aster has said he wrote the script after a break up. Breakups are often experienced as a period of mourning, a grief over the a loss of not only your significant other but also the life you had together, your mutual friends, the person you were with them.

Midsommar is about nothing more and nothing less that the absurdity of life's natural cycles

We all know death necessarily follows life. Everything ends. But the human mind finds it impossible to make any sense of that existential fact. So we impose our own meaning by turning that existential dread into rituals, intellectualizing it through thesis papers, distracting ourselves with sex, clinging onto relationships because at least then we won't die alone.

When we are met with death, when we can no longer pretend it doesn't exist, that's when we see the world for what it is. It's the unimaginably beautiful yet sickening celebration of living despite death, which you cannot escape but you can learn to accept as part of you.

Like any great folktale, Midsommar acts like a reflection of your own unconscious. Despite all the strangeness, it's a story we can all see ourselves in, like a dream collectively brought into existence by the movie theater audience. If you let it work its magic, it leaves behind something indescribably visceral -- best left to an internal understanding rather than reduced to a single meaning you can articulate with words.

Perhaps what makes Midsommar a horror movie despite its lack of terror is that, like all great horror, it finds pleasure and catharsis in facing one of the most fundamental fears of being human.

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What kind of horror is Midsommar? ›

Parents need to know that Midsommar is an extremely violent horror movie from the maker of Hereditary. It involves a sinister, ages-old ceremony that includes disturbing rituals. Characters are beaten and smashed, and bodies are cut up and burned (in some cases, alive).

Why is Midsommar considered horror? ›

"Midsommar" includes plenty of gore, and a truly disturbing sex scene. While much of the film's horror comes from psychologically unsettling events, there's also no shortage of gore. Violent acts in "Midsommar" are depicted in graphic detail, and Aster doesn't shy away from lingering on the gory aftereffects.

What is the theme behind Midsommar? ›

Midsommar is essentially a two and a half hour study of one woman's emotional journey towards emancipation from a toxic relationship. Like director Ari Aster's first film, Hereditary, it's a dark drama disguised as a terror flick. Unlike Hereditary, it has a happy ending.

What inspired Ari Aster for Midsommar? ›

Everything is considered and painstakingly designed, drawing the viewer in to Aster's sunny, creepy world. While jovial midsummer festivals are a real part of Swedish tradition, Aster took inspiration from unusual sources to build the Hårga's religious practices.


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