Midsommar begins with death and ends with a smile.
How we get from one to the other is the story of Dani, a college-aged woman who experiences deep loss, and, in trying to figure out how to deal with it, tags along with her fairly cruddy boyfriend and his pals on a trip to a small community in the Swedish countryside, the home of one of their college friends. They’re there to witness a summer festival that takes place only once every 90 years.
Homogeneous rural societies in movies are never not creepy, so we know something’s up, even if we’re not aware this was directed by Ari Aster, who made last year’s utterly horrifying Hereditary. What is up, and where each person fits into the larger ritual, is what unfolds, dreadfully, through the movie’s 140 minutes.
Aster’s got a serious ability to create awful, but still bizarrely beautiful, images (though his preoccupation with smashed-in faces is a bit silly). And he’s got a real talent for very deliberately ratcheting up pressure, as if someone’s taking quite a long time to tighten a vise around your head, or the room you’re in is oh-so-slowly getting smaller and smaller. His movies crawl under your skin and slither around.
What I’m not sure he’s so good at is creating actual people. No one outside of Dani has much real character; they’re just there to fill roles. And even she is mostly a set of circumstances rather than a realized person. But the movie is definitely her journey, from her total misery to, well, wherever she is by the end—the final shot is ambiguous enough that I don’t think we can be sure.
Midsommar is certainly a breakup movie, and probably something about finding community in the face of extreme trauma, but it’s also not a puzzle to solve. What you take from it will be yours. But with an intensity you’re not likely to shake anytime soon, what it does to you is undeniable.