When Dani (Florence Pugh) loses her family to an appalling tragedy, she finds her friends and boyfriend unable to provide the support or even the language she needs to be able to process her grief. Her baby-faced, blank edifice of a boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is on the verge of breaking up with her anyway and his friends are keen to stop him wallowing in his guilt and cut her loose. In the fall out from Dani’s trauma, the group ends up inviting her on a research trip-cum-alternative festival holiday to visit the Swedish home of Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), a fellow student at their university.
The awkwardness and cowardice of the group is well observed, as they balk at the emotional work involved in caring for Dani but are unable to admit they want to leave her behind. After trekking from Stockholm in to the Swedish countryside the group arrives at Pelle’s idyllic rural commune and meet the insular and cultish inhabitants. This ‘total family’ has a much more direct approach to dealing with death and Dani is slowly seduced away from her old relationships into a community that appreciates and even celebrates her grief.
At an earlier stage of development perhaps there existed a version of Midsommar that explored the failure of modern attitudes to grief and slyly suggested the appeal of older and more violent modes of existence. Unhappily, the potential for Dani’s conversion to be genuinely unsettling is submerged in a lather of kooky costumes, ‘trippy’ CGI effects and a backdrop that looks like a particularly awful ‘bring you kids’ type New Age festival built next to a quarry.
Structurally the film is a mess, Ari Aster blows his load far too early with an extended gory sequence that would have any real backpackers running for the hills (they are four days drive from Stockholm! In summer! Surely you would have a go?) and the fact they don’t is poorly justified by the fact they want to write their doctorates on the place. Secondly, the film quickly runs out of anything to fill the background with leading to endless sequences of white robed extras singing laments or performing what increasingly look like children’s party games. Aster is assuming a deep level of alienation in his millennial audience to think they will read Ring O’Roses as an incomprehensible and frightening activity.
On top of this the actors simply can’t carry the roles they have been given. Not one of them gives their character enough psychological depth that the audience cares about their fate, nor are they able to convey any sense of conflict as to whether they should leave or fear when they realise they can’t. A smattering of ‘woke’ issues has been thrown in including but the barest of nods to feminism and mental health (and even the plagiarism of black academics’ work) add to the texture or development of the narrative.
The ending, when it finally comes, is less the climax of psychological tensions boiling into violence than it is a collapse of the director’s ability to sustain this boneless charade any longer. The finale is a sequence of flat, graded homages to better films including The Witch, Planet of the Apes and (of course) The Wicker Man. The only original sequence brought by Aster is a scene so repulsive and hilarious that the entire cinema I watched this in descended into a chorus of hysterical, mocking laughter. A sequence, it should be pointed out, again totally divorced from any character development and serving only to reveal something unnerving about the writer’s personal fantasies. When the film was originally shown to test audiences and they also howled at its ludicrous final stab at pathos, to which the lead actor rushed out and cried, ‘Shame on you’ at the audience. Well.