Once Jordan Peele’s Us hit theaters this past April, all eyes in the horrorsphere turned to Midsommar. Released this past July, Ari Aster’s cult movie and followup to last year’s Hereditary — our top pick of 2018 — was something of a great white hope for A24.
If you recall, the film follows Dani (Florence Pugh) as she travels with her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his roommates to a pagan cult in the Scandinavian hinterland for their solstice festival. It’s a divisive film, to say the least, though we loved it.
Despite the film already running 2 hours and 27 minutes, Aster pieced together a 171-minute director’s cut. Sadly, it won’t appear on its forthcoming Blu-ray release, but it did screen this past week as part of the Lincoln Center’s Scary Movies series.
Contributing writer Scout Tafoya caught a screening and shares what’s new.
The main thread of Midsommar finds Dani dealing with her discomfort at the traditions of the Swedish pagan cult in the fictitious town of Hårga, which Christian and his rival academic Josh (William Jackson Harper) have come to study in hopes of writing their theses about them. The first change is a small one as we see the aftermath of Dani learning that Christian planned his Swedish vacation without telling her, having obviously planned to break up with her before news of her sister’s murder-suicide of her parents forced him to stay with her.
Christian lies and says that he’d been planning to invite her, but by freaking out at him, she ruined the surprise. It’s a pretty obvious comedic beat to hit in stories like this, but it’s very in-character for Christian, aka worst boyfriend of 2019. Dani accepts his invitation off screen and this new scene kind of sucks the comedic weight out of the following scene, where Christian tells his stunned roommates that Dani’s said yes to joining them and they’re all supposed to act excited about it when they see her 30 seconds from now.
From there, things are pretty much business as usual; that is, until Christian, Josh and Dani see the Hårga Elders jump to their deaths and Christian tells Josh he’ll also be doing his thesis on these deeply strange people. Christian tells Josh that he’s open to collaborating and Josh says he’s almost impressed by how calculating and lazy his decision is, as the whole trip was because Josh wanted to see their rituals firsthand.
Christian then goes outside and asks the nearest pagan how much time they usually allow for grief after witnessing the death of their elders. She tells him they don’t grieve, they put their energy into the rituals of rebirth and tribute, they just keep going. It’s meant to act as a counterpoint to Dani’s own grief, which defines her throughout the movie and is ostensibly what kept her and Christian together even as his heart’s clearly not in it.
We see a few more examples of the Hårga’s traditions, including a moonlit sacrificial ritual, where a pine tree done up with decorations and ornaments is thrown into a nearby stream to appease the female spirit to which they pray. A young boy steps up, similarly adorned in little decorations and offers to be thrown into the river like the tree, and two village elders helpfully place a stone on his stomach before swinging him to toss him into the lake. Dani stops them, horrified at their cavalier attitude toward the young one’s safety.
A new display of casual barbarism from the Hårga pushes Dani beyond shock into anger. She confronts Christian about her desire to leave, but his newfound desire to write about the commune forces him to dig in his heels. Not only is he upset about her getting in the way of his thesis project, he feels like it’s endemic of their relationship as a whole. She wants things from him, he feels trapped and pulls away. They argue for about five minutes and the following day they’ll hug each other and apologize in what is, one senses, the pattern that defines their relationship.
Aside from a couple of other things that hammer home the ugly cluelessness of Christian’s friend Mark (Will Poulter), who serves as the film’s comic relief, the changes above are basically it. Essentially, they take the film from an implicit understanding of the troubles with Josh and Dani’s relationship to an explicit one where we see their rituals of breaking up and coming back together as a mirror of the rituals of the cult’s solstice festivities. The harmony in which the Swedes live ironically mocks the tumult that defines Christian and Dani’s relationship, as well as the discord between Josh and Christian, and the impatient boorishness of horndog Mark.
By the time the film ends, though, we’ve spent more time up close and personal with Dani and Josh’s problems, so that Dani’s climactic decision to break them up through a ritual sacrifice feels perversely unearned. Prior to this, they’d been so transparent about their lack of communication that her sudden desire to be free of him doesn’t really track, even though she’s seen him abuse her trust. If anything, the less we know about her and Christian, the more shocking the ending reads. After all, Dani has not been outed as impulsive or cruel up until this point, so it seems petty to treat Christian this way. In that sense, having the film’s moral center going postal could have only worked if it didn’t rely so much on her boyfriend exhibiting the kind of behavior we only know him capable of performing.
Following the screening, Aster said the two cuts offer two different movies, and he’s not exactly wrong — after a fashion. Bottom line: The director’s cut of Midsommar gives you too much plausible deniability and hopes you don’t notice. Perhaps understandably, Aster had built a sacrifice into his movie as the logical conclusion of a story like this (e.g. people entering a foreign culture with pretensions of capturing their story and sharing it with the outside world only to be put on the menu). But even with an additional 32 minutes, he doesn’t quite foreground Dani’s change of heart. She may feel like she belongs, like she found a new family, but it doesn’t seem in character for her to become homicidal so suddenly. Alas, that’s what this movie dictates.
There must be blood and fire and Midsommar delivers them dutifully.