This article contains major spoilers for Midsommar.
Ari Aster doesn’t make horror movies; he makes anxiety movies. His filmography is less concerned with things that go bump in the night than provoking sustained, almost agonising levels of discomfort in the viewer. And though this has long been present in Aster’s work – see his profoundly disturbing debut short The Strange Thing About the Johnsons – it is most prevalent in his latest feature, Midsommar.
At first glance, Midsommar feels like a mashup of The Wicker Man and Final Destination, as a group of twentysomethings – all varying degrees of awful – meet grisly ends amid the backdrop of a Swedish pagan festival. But it’s soon clear that Aster’s sophomore effort is much more intimate, maybe even personal: an exploration of a young woman’s anxiety and the toxic relationship that exacerbates it.
When we first meet protagonist Dani (Florence Pugh), she’s already riddled with anxiety severe enough to require medication; endlessly analysing a cryptic email sent by a sister who is herself suffering from bipolar disorder. Sadly, her worries turn out to be well justified. Her primal screams of grief when she learns of her sister’s suicide – which has also killed her parents – might be the most disturbing thing in all of Midsommar.
The film may present it in an extreme context, but Dani’s behaviour will instantly be familiar to anyone who’s dealt with anxiety in their own life: berating herself for over-analysing the tiniest details of every social interaction even as she is unable to stop. Things only get worse following the tragedy. Dani is intent on repressing her emotions at every turn, slipping away to cry in bathrooms and shaking with the effort of holding in her tears. She spends almost every interaction apologising or finding ways to blame herself for starting arguments with other people, even when they’re clearly at fault.
And then there’s Christian, Dani’s emotionally distant boyfriend, played with punchable smarm by Jack Reynor. Christian was clearly looking for a way out of the relationship before Dani’s world was rocked, and spends the rest of the film exacerbating her emotional state by alternatively gaslighting her or ignoring her in favour of one of the cultists, Maja (Isabelle Grill).
The film reaches its climax (both literal and figurative) as Dani, newly-crowned Queen of the festival, catches Christian and Maja at the heart of a drug-fuelled orgy. Distraught, she breaks down sobbing, her adopted “sisters” screaming in anguish alongside her. It’s a surreal moment, but also a cathartic one – Dani is allowing herself to grieve not only the death of her family, but the much slower demise of her relationship.
It’s this moment of catharsis that holds the key to understanding the film’s bonkers finale. Christian is paralysed, stuffed into a bear carcass and burnt alive as part of the cult’s ceremonies, while Dani – covered in flowers – looks on and smiles. Ari Aster and Florence Pugh have differing interpretations of this ending, with the latter claiming it represents Dani’s final descent into madness, but I tend to agree with Aster. That final shot shows us the face of a woman who is done with her crappy boyfriend, done with apologising, and done with letting her anxiety control her. An unconventional method of self-care, perhaps, but probably better than eating a whole pint of Ben and Jerry’s on your own.