‘Midsommar’ & the Tricks of the Mind (No Spoilers)

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I don’t even know where to begin…

The unquestionable power of film is its ability to transport you. Pick you up from your seat, from your life, and plant you someplace magical. Sometimes that magic is beautiful. Fairy tales. Love songs. First kisses. But sometimes … Sometimes that magic is brilliantly, terribly dark. With “Midsommar,” there’s an uncomfortable combination of magics. The effect each has on the psyche is really quite alarming.

I will open with this. When Jordan Peele said “Midsommar” was “Atrociously disturbing,” I took him at his word. In my mind, he is one of the most terrifyingly adept minds for horror that we’ve been gifted in the last 20 years. Standing toe to toe with him is Ari Aster. He, too, has a keen mind for the absolutely horrific.

Now … “Midsommar.” I can honestly say the prevailing feeling I had while watching this film was anger, white and blinding.

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There are two very intentional themes running throughout the movie: gaslighting and choice. More disturbingly how the two actions are not mutually exclusive. From the first moment she appears on the screen, Dani (played with chilling dexterity by Florence Pugh) is in a constant state of silence. Silencing her emotions. Silencing her love. Silencing her fear, her anguish, her doubt. It’s this inability to control the sound (and thus her own narrative) that puts her in a precarious situation with every single person around her. She’s constantly forced to question her own validity as a human being, which leaves her open to becoming manipulated by people who genuinely want nothing but the worst for her.

Then there’s actual choice. At every turn, a choice was made that affected the film’s eventual resolution. Every player in this film had a role. Each role stood for something that would have lasting consequences on Dani. They are all members of her royal court: the fool, the thinker, the confidante. The lover.

While that’s not what this review is ultimately about, I do want you, dear reader, to remember those things: beauty and darkness; gaslighting and choice.

From anger, there are several emotions warring with each other at once. Which leaves me incapable of defining exactly what I felt once I walked out of the cinema. Fear…? Perhaps a bit. Dizziness, overwhelming dizziness. No, not confusion. Everything was incredibly clear. That might be the biggest part of the problem. Every single element in this movie had a purpose. There wasn’t a blade of grass out of place or unnecessary. There wasn’t a bit of dialogue thrown away or haphazardly written. The film is so meticulously rendered, it squeezes you into a box with no room to move. It’s overbearing in its preciseness. Even the brutality served a purpose.

Aster could’ve gone the way of many directors: unnecessary jump scares (there are none). Killing animals for shock value. Scenes of gratuitous violence that serve as nothing more than a scare tactic. As I said, Aster stands side by side with Peele as one of the most intelligent minds in horror cinema today. “Midsommar” illustrates that in blaring, beautiful, frightening, awful fashion.

That’s not to mention his use of sound as its own character. The audience is absolutely smothered by the unrelenting quietness. Exhalations. Choked-back sobs. Screams in the distance that you’re not sure actually are. So purposeful are these quiet moments, the loudness, when it comes, takes your breath away.

It’s Aster’s ability to craft subtle moments of terror into a film that on its surface is already seemingly terrifying. That magic I spoke of? It confuses the senses. He intentionally chose a locale with a history, a place that historically doesn’t get dark. In fact, there wasn’t a hint of real darkness or shadow in the clothing, sets, characters. But it is this pervasive brightness that played so brilliantly into the unconscionable darkness. The contest between these opposing forces gripped my psyche in ways that have never happened to me before.

The artistic choices Aster made, as with every choice of his characters, affected every member of the audience one way or the other. In these details, the pulsating, hazy details, he was able to misdirect and manipulate his audience as every other character purposely did to Dani (and each other):

Do you see what you think you see?

Do you hear what you think you hear?

Do you know what you feel?

Did you do this to yourself?

“Midsommar” is only the second film I’ve ever seen in my life where I walked away incapable of speech. It’s perhaps the first where I didn’t know where to place my emotions. Because that’s what one must do at the film’s conclusion: sit, puzzle and sift through so many thoughts, emotions, words. Even after you’ve done all that, you’ll still feel like you have no idea what the hell you’ve just seen. Psychologically exacting.

Love it or hate it, you will NOT leave “Midsommar” the same person you went in.

(IMDb, IndieWire, YouTube.)

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