Though a relative newcomer to the genre, Ari Aster is already one of the most accomplished and effective horror filmmakers of his generation. Midsommar, his sophomore effort into the genre, is a truly bizarre and memorable experience that tells of a group of friends falling into the clutches of a Pagan cult in Sweden. Reminiscent of such classics as The Wicker Man, Midsommar takes the murderous cult genre a step further, casting a dark spell onto the viewer that some, including myself, didn’t realize until it was too late.
For those who haven’t seen Midsommar, this article will be very spoiler heavy.
When I first viewed Midsommar, I considered it a twisted yet oddly optimistic film, told from the point of view of its suffering protagonist, Dani. From the outset of the film we’re meant to identify with Dani as she’s just suffered an unspeakable tragedy with the murder/suicide of her sister and parents. On top of that, Dani’s social circle, consisting of her boyfriend Christian and his friends Josh and Mark, are very dismissive and unsupportive of her following these events. Prior to the killings, Christian and his friends repeatedly blow her off, and Christian is even talking about breaking up with her. In the aftermath, Christian only seems to be staying with her out of obligation.
Christian and his friends clearly resent Dani, and even go so far as to not invite her on a trip to Sweden they’re planning to take for their anthropology degrees. Christian’s plan is to break up with Dani by phone, but that plan ends when Dani discovers the trip by accident and again, Christian invites her less out of genuine caring and more out of obligation. During these early scenes, none of the group shows any sympathy to Dani for her trauma, except one. That person is Pelle, a friend of the group and a native of the village the friends are travelling to.
Pelle’s seemingly compassionate gesture is the first time we see any semblance of concern for Dani. When the group finally arrives in Sweden, Dani is forced to contend with several panic attacks and hallucinations of her sister and parents. It’s important to note that all of these episodes happen while Dani is isolated, with Christian and friends offering no support at all. This eventually manifests itself in feelings of abandonment on the part of Dani, leading her to suffer a vivid nightmare where the group abandons her in the village.
Dani may be neurotic and needy, but her friends are nevertheless toxic and thoroughly unlikeable people. This makes us pity Dani and want to see that social void filled by people who are more caring and attentive to her suffering. That right there is the trick the film pulls on the audience.
Filling a social void is one of the ways cults entrap newcomers, and Pelle’s village does it well. Once the festivities begin, Dani is treated like royalty. She wins a maypole dancing contest and is thus crowned May Queen. Afterwards, Dani is treated like royalty with flowery garments and is given the power to begin the actual feast, finally attaining the attention she so desperately needed following the murders. As a viewer, we are almost happy for Dani. I know I was. As Midsommar went on, Dani seemed to find herself in a more supportive environment, which comes to a head in the third act.
Remember those panic attacks? Dani has an especially bad one following her seeing Christian having sex with one of the villagers. Afterwards, Dani has a complete breakdown, but for the first time in Midsommar, she actually seems to have support and empathy from the villagers, who mimic her cries and comfort her until she calms down. Someone could look at this and think isn’t Dani better off? Much of the film is told from her point of view, and from her point of view, the villagers are more supportive. If however, we step away from Dani, we’re left with the disquieting idea that none of this is truly for Dani’s benefit and all of it is by design.
Upon further exanimation of Midsommar, it is my belief that nothing that occurs with Dani happens by accident, and that all of these events were staged for her benefit. For the most part, cults target the vulnerable. Teens dealing with disillusionment, people suffering from economic or social hardships, folks suffering from anxieties about the state of affairs of the world, and many others are especially vulnerable to the many allures cults offer, one of which is a sense of community. People who have left cults often speak of a sense of community and sincere regret for the friends they left behind.
At the offset of Midsommar, Dani has no real community, and following the deaths of her family, now has a void in her life that needs to be filled with new people. With her social circle outright resenting her, Dani is left isolated and alone, and that I believe is why she’s been targeted by the cult, and that perhaps her coming on the trip to Sweden is no accident. In spite of barely knowing him, Pelle already knows about the deaths of Dani’s family, and approaches her on the subject immediately after first meeting her. So we know that Christian or one of his friends filled Pelle in on the details. Part of Pelle’s festival is to bring new blood into the village. Is it possible that Pelle somehow arranged for Dani to find out about the trip so she could be a contender?
The events leading up to the maypole dance are important to look at. One might be tempted to say Dani simply won the competition and was therefore given her reward in accordance with local customs. If that is the case, then why were none of the other visitors given a chance? The cult takes an almost immediate interest in Dani, while the other visitors are either disregarded or treated with outright disdain. A couple who travelled to the village along with Dani’s group is killed almost immediately and offscreen, with no courting efforts made to them whatsoever. Why was this couple killed before given a chance to compete in the maypole dance? Why were they discarded while Dani is coddled?
Cults try very hard to hide the truth from new members until they’re in too deep to escape. In an earlier article, we discussed the interesting choice to keep most of the horror elements of Midsommar offscreen until the very end. This is because, for Dani, most of the violence remains unseen, and hew view of the cult is what the film is trying to convey. From her perspective, the cult is a much-needed entity to fill the social and emotional void she’d feeling, but when we break away, the truth is revealed.
The most significant time we leave Dani in Midsommar is when we follow Christian. Christian is used as a pawn to further corrupt Dani, with the cult trying to convince Dani that she can’t trust him. Perhaps this is the reason Christian is targeted by a local villager who wants him to get her pregnant, while Mark and Josh are largely ignored. It’s through Christian that we finally see the fates that have befallen the others, with his friends, as well as the other couple, having been horrifically butchered. Dani doesn’t really see this violence, and Christian never has a chance to tell her before he is drugged. She is aware that the others are gone, but is never given an opportunity to see how they’ve been murdered.
Dani uncovers the Christian and one of the villagers having sex, one might say a little too easily. While Christian is a very unlikable character, he still engages in the act only after being drugged by the cult itself, and it’s them who instigated the sex. Now, if this cult really did care about Dani and her emotional welfare, why would so many of them be involved in this scheme? Why not say ‘no?’ Why not tell Dani about it and confront Christian for his infidelities’? Why any of it, if it wasn’t all part of a larger scheme to create the illusion of choice for Dani.
The entirety of Midsommar leads up to a human sacrifice where three people are to be burned alive. Supposedly, Dani is given the choice of choosing a local villager or Christian himself. Feeling betrayed and hurt by his treatment and infidelity, Dani chooses Christian and he is killed. But is it really her choice? Christian had already seen too much to ever be allowed to leave, so even if Dani didn’t choose him, would either of them ever have been allowed to leave? Would either of them ever be permitted to live?
Cults offer the appealing illusion of freedom, and that’s what Dani is given at the end of Midsommar. She’d told she has the choice of who to sacrifice, but the choice she makes is surely by the design of the cult. This group was picked because of Dani and how poorly she was treated, and Christian was always their intended target for the final sacrifice, them using him as a prop to manipulate her into making the choice they always wanted. At the end of the film, Dani believes she is free but is she really? Dani did make the choice, but only after several days of being coddled by the cult and isolated from her social group. Cults offer the illusion of freedom, but that’s all it is. An illusion.
BREAKING THE SPELL
When I saw Midsommar, I related very deeply to Dani’s sense of sadness and isolation, so when the cult finally came into her life, it almost did seem like a happy occasion, especially given the poor company she kept beforehand. She did seem free, and at the end when the hut burned with Christian inside and Dani smiled, I got the feeling that this was the start of a new, better chapter in her life, but it’s all a lie.
Dani is put in such a poor spot that when the cult works its magic, we feel that same false sense of belonging that she does. Midsommar is one of the most unsettling films I’ve seen in a long time because it doesn’t just try to scare you. It entices and corrupts in the same way its villains do. Understanding the spell of Midsommar is very important. If the movie can fool us, and we have the wisdom to recognize it, maybe we can avoid that same spell in real life.