Midsommar is a nightmare playing out in broad daylight

Bernadette Bruu, Arts Editor

In a genre saturated with night terrors of every kind, perhaps the scariest thing a horror film can do is to turn on the lights. That’s exactly what happens in “Midsommar,” the latest film from director Ari Aster. His 2018 psychological thriller “Hereditary” received critical acclaim for its gut-wrenching twists and staying power, but it largely played it safe in using seen-before gore tropes and a dark set to complement its unique subject matter. His new film “Midsommar,” which premiered this July in the United States, is anything but conventional.

Set in the Swedish countryside during a traditional group’s midsummer festival, “Midsommar” follows a college student named Dani who accompanies her boyfriend Christian and his friends on what begins as a vacation-slash-research-trip and ends up something much, much different. Many critics have delved into the underlying themes of “Midsommar,” which include, but are not limited to, cult psychology, relationship metaphors, anti-academia and feminism. To me, the most striking aspect of the film is its ability to portray with painful clarity the specific experience of coping with trauma. All the major plot elements, as well as many of the visual ones, are linked in that they would obviously be perceived and interpreted very differently by someone in emotional distress than someone on vacation trying to be open to other cultures’ traditions.

This sets up the main conflict of the film – Dani is subject to a trifecta of soul-crushing situations: a gruesome family tragedy that occurs right before she departs for Sweden, her failing relationship with Christian and the increasingly harrowing and violent rituals of the Hårga cult. The disillusionment resulting from the first two allows her to perceive the third. Unlike Christian and his fellow anthropology grad students, she is unable to produce any positive emotions that would allow her to ignore the doubts she has about the rituals. She becomes the only main character with a grasp of reality, but is constantly treated by Christian and his friends — all male, all anthropology graduate students — as the spoilsport of their trip.

When she tries to voice concerns about the sinister undercurrent of the festival, she is dismissed, berated or urged to just relax, to get over it. This pattern mimics a common experience of those coping with serious trauma, known as “gaslighting.” It involves a particular type of manipulation designed to make the target feel like they are being unreasonable and the source of problems for others, when more often than not it is the gaslighter(s) who is actually causing stress for the person they try to discredit.

As Dani gains knowledge of Christian and the Hårga’s deception, she loses her sanity, lacking the space and support to process her various traumas. Without giving away any of the ending, this mental break leads her down a very different path than viewers would expect at the start of the film — and if you’re wondering, no, she doesn’t start killing people. It’s a twisted parable about making the most of your circumstances.

In terms of artistry, the film has largely been praised for its cinematography and originality, even if the plot lags at points and the development of supporting characters is so sparse that it creates a noticeable gap. The film is meant for those who are neither critics nor casual viewers; “Midsommar” is meant for those who enjoy surface-level analysis of arthouse films, a process which almost always ends with a resounding, “Iconic.” If you consider yourself an enigmatic presence, this might be your favorite film of 2019.

Harsh criticisms aside, there are many good reasons to watch “Midsommar.” For one, it takes a unique perspective on trauma, one that involves neither self-destruction nor victorious and miraculous recovery. Furthermore, it is a truly beautiful film. White garments and colorful flowers adorn almost every shot and the staging of many scenes denotes an immense respect for the film canon. That said, if you are a film buff, you’ll recognize some of the themes in “Midsommar” as belonging to Robin Hardy’s 1973 horror film “The Wicker Man” (which was remade in 2006 with Nicholas Cage in the title role). Both fall into the category of “folk horror,” a genre that often deals with pagan or occult forces that wreak havoc on humans. However, both deviate from that category in another way: their stories involve only humans. None of the gore and destruction can be attributed to supernatural beings; everything is invoked by people against people.

What makes “Midsommar” so bone-chilling is its realism, made even more apparent by the literal light shed on humans’ capacity for cruelty. This revelation is doubly manifested in Dani’s trauma at the hands of her most trusted loved ones and in the students’ subjection to the Hårga’s persistent and boundless will. Though the two arcs run through the entire film, only at the end is the viewer faced with the true implications of the story, which are more haunting than any bogeyman or evil clown.

“Midsommar” is in select theatres and streamable online with Amazon Prime.