Only a few months ago, writer and director Ari Aster delivered ‘Midsommar’, the highly-anticipated follow-up to his jaw-dropping debut ‘Hereditary’. Audiences expecting another pitch-black chamber piece were greeted with something entirely different: a horror epic of staggering visual and emotional scale, wildly ambitious yet still as psychologically rich. While it certainly owed a debt to other classic films, there’s no other film quite like it - a dizzying experience somewhere between a dream and a nightmare. At two and a half hours, it was already a marathon, but now Aster has added a further 27 minutes with his director's cut, making small additions and adjustments that somehow make a remarkable film even more so.
Most extended cuts of horror films (if you could even call the almost indescribable ‘Midommar’ a horror film) focus on adding more jumps and gore. In the case of ‘Midsommar’ though, the new and extended material focus on building the characters, relationships and world of the film, making for a far richer and more satisfying experience. None of them alter the essential structure or intention of the film, but work to support them, making its foundations even stronger, especially in the second act of the film where most of the changes occur.
We’re given more time to watch as Dani (Florence Pugh, ‘Fighting with my Family’, ‘Lady Macbeth’) and Christian’s (Jack Reynor, ‘Sing Street’, ‘Free Fire’) relationship falls apart, fuelled by her determination to make it work and his inability to try. Christian is playing the performance of a loving partner and not very well, and the real heartbreak of the film is how Dani continues to both excuse him and blame herself for his failings. Theirs is an emotionally abusive relationship, mostly due to his tendency to be a coward and not just let her go. One would expect, with her very recent trauma, that Dani might use him as a crutch for support, but Dani is far stronger and more resilient. She may have a tenuous grip on her grief, but she has one nonetheless, and at no point asks him to carry that burden for her. In the director's cut though, we see Christian blaming Dani for apparently relying on him, betraying his own guilt at his inability to either help her or end the relationship. Their relationship is more claustrophobic, more unfair on her, more damning of him, and certainly makes the throttle towards the film’s thunderous climax all the more satisfying.
Time and space are also given to developing further the friendship between the three male protagonists, especially Christian and Josh (William Jackson Harper, TV's ‘The Good Place’). They all seem like such unlikely PhD candidates, and here Aster addresses this, revealing a pattern of academic and personal co-dependency that comes to a head in the extreme circumstances of Hälsingland. Their response to this strange community is either to aggressively define and document it or to react with incredulity at their customs, almost always with little regard for the Hörga themselves.
As well as Dani and Christian’s relationship, much of Aster’s additions and changes in his director's cut continue to develop the traditions and beliefs of the Hörga. Much of the philosophical subtext hinted at in the theatrical cut is made clearer here, especially the connection between grief and celebration, but never in a manner that ends up being obvious or clunky. The act of grieving is integral to both the Hörga and to the film itself, built on the complex relationship between life and death. What initially horrifies about their actions is how they fly in the face of our modern understanding and lack of comfort with death, but the symphonic thematic power of ‘Midsommar’ is in how it depicts unbridled grieving on a community level, the kind that has been conditioned out of us. Even after multiple viewings, there are moments in ‘Midsommar’ that still bring me to tears, moments where pain and grief are accepted as part of the violence of being alive, and how it is embraced rather than suppressed.
There are moments in ‘Midsommar’ that bring me to tears, moments where pain and grief are accepted as part of the violence of being alive.
The new material also makes clearer the machinations behind their manipulation of Dani, Christian and the others, something both Dani and Josh begin to see before it devours them. Where the theatrical cut surprised with its lightness and humour, the director's cut is a more oppressive and inevitable experience. You can see the jaws closing, the trap being set, the path being laid, but Aster still never turns the Hörga into two-dimensional villains. Their culture depends on the circle of life and death, and while they accept the violence of their actions, they also accept that, for them, these actions are vital and will cause great pain. In many ways, the lens through which we witness the events of ‘Midsommar’ is theirs, not Dani's or Christian’s. The violence and gore in the film are horrific, but also strangely beautiful, and Bobby Krlic’s score exalts rather than terrifies. With ‘Hereditary’ and ‘Midsommar’, Aster has delivered two highly subjective horror films, where the film itself celebrates the suffering of its protagonists for the eventual joy it will bring those causing it. In the final moments of ‘Midsommar’, the Hörga complete their ritual but also offer Dani a chance to fully embrace her grief and burn her trauma to the ground. It’s a conflicting experience for an audience in the best possible way. Amidst the horror, there is catharsis. Mixed into unimaginable darkness is blinding, dazzling, terrifying light.
The theatrical cut of ‘Midsommar’ was already a remarkable piece of work, but this director's cut makes it a far more rich, far more satisfying and far more shattering experience. The added material bolsters the character arcs and thematic subtext, and the extended length gives the film even more weight and space to breathe. I felt even more now that I was watching a classic in the making; a film that will be studied and discussed and admired for many, many years to come, a great work of modern cinema. Ari Aster could have played it safe after ‘Hereditary’ and followed it up with something just as intimate and vicious, but instead pushes his ambition and our understanding of the horror genre. If ‘Hereditary’ is a chamber piece, then ‘Midsommar’ is an opera - audacious, breathtaking and overwhelming. And with his director's cut, Ari Aster has elevated an already incredible film to the status of a masterpiece.