Entertainment

The Creepy, Cathartic Meaning Behind the Wild End of 'Midsommar'

midsommar
A24

This post contains spoilers for Midsommar. 

Director Ari Aster loves watching it all burn, and just like Hereditary before it, Midsommar ends in fire.

Florence Pugh's heartbroken Dani, who suffered a great personal trauma and the dissolution of a truly shitty relationship, has been crowned the HĂ„rga people's May Queen. Two of the Americans she traveled to Sweden with are already dead, and as May Queen she's given a choice: Sacrifice a HĂ„rgan or her unsupportive boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor). (The HĂ„rgans like to make things fair; they die along with the newbies.) She chooses Christian, who's sewn into the eviscerated body of a bear and left to immolate. 

As the HĂ„rgan sacred temple is engulfed in flames, Dani's face contorts into a smile, one of the few moments she projects something resembling joy. Throughout the rest of the film, Dani has been consumed by immense grief as she reels from the murder-suicide that killed her sister and parents. Sure, she just sentenced the guy she was in a relationship with to death, but given all the trauma she's experienced, she finds a kind of freedom in breaking up in the most permanent way possible. 

"This is a wish-fulfillment fantasy, and I hope that over the course of the film, it becomes increasingly clear that these people are almost absurdly designed to fulfill her specific needs," Aster says. "She's in need of family, she needs people who can, you know, not just witness her experience, but mirror it. She needs people who are there to allow her to experience what she's experiencing, and not to deny her feelings or who she is or what she's going through, but to be able to actually grapple with this deeply existential dilemma that she's been going through." 

reynor midsommar
A24

But Aster doesn't completely absolve the HĂ„rgans of their nefariousness, either. They are, after all, the ones who practice human sacrifice, even though their sinister aims are rooted in a strange fairness. The HĂ„rgans insist on killing members of their own community along with outsiders, and they console Dani in her time of crisis. After she sees Christian having sex with one of the local girls in a bizarre mating ritual, Dani's breathing grows ragged before she collapses into screams of agony. The women of the town sit with her and absorb her own sorrow, wailing right along with her. It's comforting, but also resembles the exact kind of relationship from which she's running. 

Aster points to one reason the extreme solidarity the community offers Dani comes off not as warm, but creepy. "[The HĂ„rgans] are codependency made manifest, right? So she's moving from a codependent relationship to, like, the ultimate codependent relationship," he adds. "So it's like she's really not actually being liberated from anything, she's being tethered to a new thing that will be impossible to untether herself from." Dani may have been in an unhealthy relationship with Christian, but in sanctioning his murder she's done nothing to address the root cause of the issue.

Midsommar's finale is, in a sense, predictable, especially in its reference to the culmination of 1973's The Wicker Man. There, a police officer investigating what he thinks is a disappearance on an island finds himself in a trap laid by the pagan cult who inhabits it. The girl is alive, and he's going to be put in a giant, flammable structure and burned as an offering to the harvest gods. 

But Aster admits folk horror was really just the superstructure he wanted to play in, instead citing a more surprising source of inspiration. "I was thinking if anything about those bad teen movies with the girl who's with the wrong guy and the right guy is right under her nose, and at the end she's finally able to see what's been right in front of her the whole time and she can take the shoebox full of all of those memories and she can throw it into the bonfire in her backyard." Except in this case the bonfire doesn't just contain memories of her ex. He's actually in there, getting crisped in the blaze.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.