Ari Aster makes scary movies. The times we're in make them even scarier. Aster isn't a political filmmaker by any traditional definition, but the two features he's directed—last year's Hereditary and the stunning new "folk horror" film Midsommar—play like movies specifically made for our current political moment, as institutions appear on the verge of crumbling, one norm vanishes after another, and the damage visited on the Earth reaches a tipping point that threatens to drive the ground beneath our feet and the air we breathe into revolt. There's nothing ripped-from-the-headlines about either film, and neither works as a powerful allegory, the way Jordan Peele's Get Out and Us both do. But Aster's features nonetheless capture the free-floating terror of life in the latter half of the 2010s by offering visions of what might come next—visions that he draws from the most horrific tendencies of our past, with the suggestion that the old, more violent ways of thinking and living might have been driven into hiding rather than banished.
Sometimes the horror calls from inside the house. (What follows, unavoidably, includes spoilers for both of Aster's films.) In Hereditary, Toni Collette plays Annie, an artist specializing in unsettling miniature domestic scenes who, as the film opens, is grieving the loss of her mother. Only "grieving" isn't quite the right word. Her mother's death has brought a certain amount of relief that she can't hide—at least until a tragic accident makes her aware of her mother's secret life as part of an occult society determined to find a male human host for the demon Paimon. Soon she's at odds with a sinister sect, one that has no use for civilization and its morality beyond using their polite trappings as a source of cover. They worship an old form of darkness, one hiding in plain sight in suburban Utah, waiting until it can reassert itself.
If modern horror has a fountainhead, it’s H.P. Lovecraft, who saw evidence all around him of humanity's puny place in the cosmos, and whose stories found ways to express that anxiety through tales of monstrous forces beyond our comprehension waiting to do us in—or at least to make a mockery of our values and morality. Aster's debut followed a model at least as old as Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu," the author's landmark short story, in which an increasingly shaken narrator encounters, via cults spread across the globe, mounting evidence of an unspeakable horror soon to return. But the Paimon-worshippers of Hereditary, unlike Lovecraft's Cthulhu cultists, fit right into contemporary life. Like the friendly Satanic cultists of Rosemary's Baby, they worship a demonic force of unfathomable power for whom they're eager to commit horrific acts. But they also drive Toyotas and shop at Home Depot. By keeping to the shadows and hiding behind modern appurtenances, they've secretly used tradition to keep the old ways alive, secure in the knowledge that those ways will serve them well when the niceties of modern existence inevitably collapse—a collapse they're eager to hasten.
Midsommar expands on that atavistic idea, stripping away the supernatural elements of Hereditary and finding in the rituals of a remote Swedish commune's Midsommar celebrations a brutal, but beguilingly packaged, alternative to the confusion and chaos of modern life.
Opening on a snowy American university far from the endless daylight of the Swedish summer that serves as its primary setting, Midsommar finds protagonist Dani (the preternaturally expressive English actress Florence Pugh) in the midst of a personal crisis. Dani's unstable sister, after sending a string of disturbing emails, has killed her parents and herself. Dani's boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), a graduate student at the college she’s attending, offers only the feeblest of support, both in the immediate aftermath of the murders and in the months that follow. Even pre-tragedy, Christian had come to regard Dani as a sort of burden, one he wearily continues to shoulder through her time of mourning. His friends see their break-up as inevitable, particularly Mark (Will Poulter), who actively encourages a split. Even the kindhearted Josh (William Jackson Harper), Christian's fellow anthropology grad student, can't see much future for them. When Christian fails to tell Dani that he's made plans to accompany Mark, Josh, and their friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) back to Hårga, the isolated Swedish community where Pelle grew up, to observe its Midsommar rituals, their relationship seems to have reached a breaking point.
Then Dani accepts Christian's half-hearted invitation to accompany them to Hårga, a choice that ultimately lands her in the middle of a centuries-old pagan ritual, where feasting, dancing, and a frolicsome atmosphere commingle with blood, fire, and sacrifice. From a distance, these rites might look like the version of Midsummer touted by Sweden's tourist board as a reason to visit the country: colorful summer solstice celebrations with Pagan origins, where Christianity and modernity have sanded off any rough edges sanded.
It doesn't take a sharp observer long to spot the differences, though. Dressed, like everyone else around them, in traditional costumes, children twirl through grassy fields, while aged community members voluntarily nosedive off cliffs. Seemingly casual flirtations give way to bizarre fertility rituals. The pleasant buzz of wine leads to intoxicants harder than the mushrooms Christian and his friends take as a kind of aperitif before arriving at Hårga; the commune offers potent drugs of unknown origin that seem never to relax their grip once they take hold.
Yet, in spite of it all, there's an order to life at Hårga. The old die to make room for the young. The fertility rites in which the outsiders unexpectedly, and unwillingly, find themselves participating are necessary to keep the gene pool fresh. The inbreeding that does happen? Well, sometimes you need that to produce the malformed offspring that allow you to understand the will of the spirits.
Much of the film's power, and its dry, dark humor, come from the way Aster lets it play out as a seduction. Using long takes and scenes that linger an uncomfortable beat too long, and then a little longer still, Midsommar sometimes feels like a film made with the aim of cult indoctrination. Its sunny fields and their smiling residents treat even the most shocking acts as inevitable, the way things have to be. Hårga normalizes the unspeakable—a cradle-to-grave system of control, in which everything from procreation to death follows ancient rules, and murder acts as both a punishment and a spur to fertility. (Though the kids do apparently get to enjoy the occasional Austin Powers film, if the village elder is to be believed.) Its residents even set its horrors to lovely, uplifting folk music and memorialize their sacrificial paganism in art.
Yet the seduction ultimately succeeds, at least for Dani, because the system at Hårga works. It's a functional, sustainable way of life, free of the ambiguities and disappointments of the "civilized" world she's known. Her relationship with Christian has fizzled, if it ever possessed a spark at all. The anti-depressants she swallows to keep herself from reeling after her family tragedy can't keep the darkness at bay. The drugs she ingests to lose herself before arriving at Hårga bring only fear. So, when all else has failed, why not try this way of life? Once you strip away centuries of accumulated morality and agreed-upon taboos, the arrangement at Hårga makes sense. What's a little blood when it's spilled for the greater good? This arrangement has worked for generations at Hårga, a place that the film suggests exists to preserve an older way of Swedish life. Why shouldn't it work again?
At heart, Midsommar is a break-up movie, one Aster has suggested was inspired by the messy end of his own relationship (and by Albert Brooks' Modern Romance). Part of Hårga's appeal to Dani undoubtedly comes from the commune's clearly defined gender roles, in which everyone knows the parts they have to play and nobody lives in the agony of a dying romance. It means giving up a lot of freedom, sure, but it involves a lot less ambiguity too. That Hårga’s residents live so harmoniously with nature, even blurring the lines between human and animal by letting the livestock run free among the residents, might also have some appeal. Sure, the rules might occasionally require burning someone alive inside the skin of a bear, but the circle of life isn't always pretty.
But the film's implications stretch beyond romantic relationships. A few weeks before Midsommar hit theaters, a bizarre story emerged from Oregon. Rather than provide a quorum for a vote on a climate change bill, 11 Republican lawmakers fled the state. Right-wing militias then threatened the Capitol, forcing a shutdown. Confronted with the possibility that he might be compelled by the police to return to Oregon, Republican State Senator Brian Boquist replied that the police should, "Send bachelors and come heavily armed."
That's just one example of how recent years have exposed the fragility of our institutions, but it's a telling one. When the law doesn't work, ignore it. When that doesn't work, threaten escalation, even bloodshed. The unacceptable becomes normal one instance at a time. If a system breaks under reactionary pressure rather than bending, and if those pressuring it end up collapsing it rather than taking over, then what follows? Midsommar suggests it's not some fresh new horror but rather an old one, perhaps a way of living that throws out much of what we consider civilization in favor of an even more rigid idea of stability and order, even if it means throwing out some modern notions of morality and kindness as well. (Or else it's a way of living that looks to a violent and imaginary version of the past for dark inspiration, as white supremacists' enduring fascination with medieval imagery suggests.) Aster fills his films with scenes made all the more disturbing when considered as previews of what could wait on the other side of a society-wide breakdown—not chaos, exactly, but instead a way of life we've kidded ourselves into thinking belongs only in a barbaric past.
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