Previously on What’s Joey Been Watching?:
“…can I look past the weak plot and structure and love Midsommar? I can’t.”
“…every long, atmospheric shot of an idyllic Swedish landscape made me feel like 30 minutes could be cut out extremely easily.”
“Find more ways to hurt me, Ari.”
In our discussion of Midsommar, Noah and I had our disagreements, but we agreed conclusively that this is the exact movie Ari Aster wanted to make. A24 doesn’t seem to meddle much with its directors, often allowing them to make movies as long and atmospheric as they please. At two hours and 23 minutes, we never thought for a second that vital information had been cut.
A few weeks ago, Noah and I found out that the Midsommar Director’s Cut exists and was shown at some random horror film festival in New York. Of course, this means Ari Aster hadn’t made his perfect version of Midsommar, and had to leave things on the cutting room floor to keep it to the studio’s liking. We knew we had to see it at any cost. So we drive down to the States–
Nope, wait, it’s playing at some theatres in Montreal and Toronto, we’re all good. So, it’s 28 extra minutes. That’s a pretty substantial amount, but can it really elevate a movie from being merely decent to being an absolute masterpiece? No way, I said, as I sat down to watch a three hour movie I’d already seen most of before.
Sometimes it feels incredible to be wrong.
What you’re about to read is an in depth analysis of the Midsommar Director’s Cut. If you haven’t seen Midsommar, or you have but have yet to see the Director’s Cut, please, please go see it. It’s very possible that Ari Aster will have made my favourite movie of the year two years in a row, and that makes it compulsory viewing for all of you. This analysis will spoil everything but won’t summarize the plot, so you might get a little lost if you haven’t seen either version. Well, now that nobody’s reading anymore, enjoy thousands of words that’ll fall on deaf ears!
I’ll go through every problem I had in the original, and in painstaking detail, will explain why it’s fixed in the Director’s Cut, or how it was fixed by me seeing the movie again and having a better appreciation for the smaller details.
Problem #1: Josh, Mark, Connie, and Simon don’t matter.
Solution: That’s the point. Ari Aster created this Swedish ceremony, which means he could have made the final ritual require only a couple newcomers, but he instead opted for four newcomers, four Halsinglandians, and a final choice of one or the other by the May Queen. These characters are important in their own right, but also serve to focus the film more and more on the relationship between Christian and Dani as the others die off around them.
In the first half, Mark provides comic relief, and of the main group, is the only one who’s in Halsingland for fun. Pelle brought Josh and Christian because they were easy to convince and were already heavily interested in the culture, and Mark happened to come along for the ride, much like we are as an audience. He becomes the asshole-ish audience relation, in that he sees every custom as incredibly strange, just like we do, but in a much less tasteful way. Pelle likely knows Mark would be problematic, but brings him regardless because of how easy it was to get these offerings. Pelle also knows that since Christian and Josh are doing research, they’re much less likely to want to leave after seeing the cliff suicide, and Mark wouldn’t want to leave without his friends (despite not even seeing the suicide).
Ingemar, on the other hand, is far less prepared. He brings only two people, Connie and Simon, and is clearly more socially awkward (“we weren’t dating, we had been on one date,” says Connie). He doesn’t realise that Simon and Connie are much, much less likely to be tolerant of the suicide ritual, and nearly upends the entire ceremony by having them want to leave. I sincerely believe that the cult does not want to hurt people, and wishes for them to have a genuinely great time before they’re, you know, turned into skin puppets and set aflame. Of course, the exception here is Ulf, who most definitely wants to hurt Mark and Josh. We don’t know what happens to Mark, but we do see Ulf wearing his face, so I’m sure it wasn’t painless. Josh getting smacked over the head was probably painful for a second, too, but he didn’t last long enough to be in much pain. Yes, I’m defending the cult. They only kill four or five unwilling people every 90 years? I’d argue that’s a pretty darn good track record; that’s only killing about 0.05 foreigners per year!
Josh has his place as well. One of the main reasons I think the Director’s Cut sets me up to finally view Midsommar as the masterpiece it is, is because it makes Christian look like so much more of an asshole. In the original cut, much of Christian’s assholery has to do with his disrespect of Josh and his studies. Christian decides on a whim that he’s going to do his PhD thesis on pretty much the exact same subject as Josh, and Josh is justifiably furious with his so-called friend. We don’t like Christian at this point, that much is clear. If we only saw how he interacts with Dani, we wouldn’t dislike Christian nearly as much, making Josh vital to the original cut’s final moral dilemma of whether or not Dani is justified in her decision to have Christian get burned alive. As we’ll touch on a lot more later, the Director’s Cut makes us hate Christian rather than dislike him by having him show his true colours in an argument with Dani. Both Josh and Dani’s relationships with Christian are necessary for making us hate him, and making us hate him is necessary for the culmination of Midsommar’s primary theme: Mirrors.
Problem #2: What’s up with the mirrors? It makes for some cool shots, but it feels aesthetic rather than thematic, or maybe I’m not getting something?
Solution: Let’s take a look at The Cabin in the Woods, because it’s purposely comprised of traditional horror tropes, and makes it easy to dissect how Midsommar does the exact opposite. And I don’t mean that it rejects the tropes and does something completely different like Hereditary, I mean it is literally a reverse horror movie.
Let’s start at the start. Or the end. Or however you wanna look at it. Midsommar begins with its most horrifying and upsetting scenes. The Director’s Cut doesn’t change anything, but seeing it again and knowing what was about to happen gave me a sense of dread I’ve rarely ever felt, especially at the beginning of a movie. The Cabin in the Woods, like nearly any horror flick, saves its most horrible and perturbing stuff for the finale, in which every character is killed off and the Gods return to punish the Earth. It’s a bleak (albeit hilarious) ending, which perfectly contrasts the depraved beginning of Midsommar.
In the end, we see Dani, having indirectly killed her boyfriend, weeping. That is, until the weeping gives way to neutrality, and slowly becomes the most genuine expression of joy we’ve seen from her in the past three hours, a beaming smile. This is the moment that the Director’s Cut becomes brilliant. I’m smiling along with her. I’m not conflicted, I’m perfectly content that when Dani faced the choice between killing someone she’s never met in her life and a man she’s dated for four years (or as Christian thinks, three and a half), she chooses the devil she knows. She’s finally free of his false love, his manipulative attitude, his burden. He tells her he feels trapped in their relationship; this is her letting him out. Let’s relate this back to The Cabin in the Woods: we start the movie with all of our characters having a fantastic time, hanging out, smoking weed, and getting ready for their getaway. Every traditional horror movie starts with the main characters deciding to do something joyous and having it go horribly wrong at the beginning of the second act. Midsommar’s joy is at its end, and its misery at its beginning, holding up a mirror to a tried and true formula.
Once that became clear to me at 3am the night I saw the Director’s Cut, my brain (with some help from Noah) couldn’t stop coming up with other examples of mirrors. Let’s start with some literal examples: Early on, we see Christian through a mirror strangely often. Often enough for me to notice the first time, but not enough for me to actually comprehend the meaning without having to see the whole thing again. My interpretation is that Christian may appear as though he’s a genuinely caring and loving boyfriend, but in reality, he’s unappreciative and spiteful (“…find a girl who actually enjoys sex,” says Mark, suggesting Christian has complained about the subject before. “It’s abuse, you’re being abused,” says Mark, referring to Dani’s perceived neediness). The one scene in which we never see Christian in a mirror before they get to Halsingland is in the restaurant, talking to his friends. He’s not hiding anything, he’s not pretending, and therefore we see the real him, not a reflection that may resemble Christian. The mirror hides his true self, his cowardice, and his lack of regard for Dani’s wellbeing.
There’s also Dani’s sister’s reflection in the mirror of the outhouse(?) during her bad trip, though this one is much more obvious. She’s still constantly haunted by her depression and tragedy, and the hallucinogen manifests these feelings as a vision of her sister.
There are plenty of other minor mirrors strewn about Halsingland: The girls pick flowers while walking backwards, the virgin prophecy is read and shot right to left, the dance circle during the May Queen competition changes direction every time the music stops, the list goes on. The Halsinglandians even breathe backwards, finishing their prayers with an exaggerated exhale then inhale. Curiously, the book that Josh and Christian want so desperately to get their hands on is read from left to right, as is the prophetic painting that opens the movie, and I don’t have an explanation for that. I’m sure there are plenty more examples that I’d only be able to pick up on upon a third viewing, which is something I’d only be willing to do if I came seven minutes late. I don’t think I can go through that intro ever again.
Problem #3: The pacing is slow, I was a little bored during the second act.
Solution: The Director’s Cut gives Midsommar a revitalized sense of direction. The fight between Dani and Christian gives us a reason to think that this relationship is doomed, and it’s only a matter of time before shit hits the fan. Despite adding 28 minutes, the pacing improves because I can see Dani slowly adapting and starting to appreciate the customs of the commune, which reinforces the idea that she stays with them after the movie ends, having cut off the only tie to her home in the US and gaining a new, massive, loving (and admittedly somewhat murderous) family. One of the added scenes shows her stopping a young boy from being sacrificed simply by speaking up. She learns that she can have an influence on these people, and they aren’t one-dimensional monsters who kill senselessly. The fact that I was more invested in Dani’s relation to the commune made me appreciate more of the world building details, and the beautiful static shots of the various rituals and meals look just a little more beautiful through Dani’s eyes.
Problem #4: The movie lost me a little bit during the underage sex scene, and it takes away from Christian’s character that he needs to take drugs to be willing to cheat on Dani.
Solution: Once again, the argument scene fixes this problem entirely. Christian shows us that he sucks and feels nothing but spite toward Dani, and it isn’t that far a leap anymore to say that he’d be willing to cheat on her. The only reason the drugs are required is to open him up to the idea of cheating on her with a 15 year old, something he may not have done had he been in a sound state of mind. The Halsinglandians expose Christian, naked and vulnerable, to Dani, forcing her to finally realise that she hasn’t had a family since her sister’s murder-suicide. Christian is not worthy of being family, but Pelle is. Siv is. Maja is. Inga is. These people respect her, and want the best for her. It’s too bad people had to die for her to realise that, but, well, these things happen.
Ari Aster calls Midsommar “a breakup movie dressed in the clothes of a folk horror film,” and the original cut doesn’t capture this nearly as well. Every part of the movie is ultimately about Christian and Dani, and that idea reveals itself far more prominently and effectively in the Director’s Cut, letting us finally feel the way Ari Aster wants us to.
You never wanted to hurt me, Ari. You wanted to make me smile.