Brow Beat

Is It OK to Laugh at Midsommar’s Brutal, Unhinged Ending?

A still from Midsommar featuring Isabelle Grill in a field of flowers
Isabelle Grill in Midsommar
A24

This piece contains spoilers for the ending of Midsommar.

By the time you get to the very end of Midsommar—through the deranged dance marathon and the hollowed-out bear—just about any reaction seems reasonable: horror, exhaustion, relief, mild stupor, even laughter. That last one is perhaps the movie’s greatest surprise. Writer-director Ari Aster’s last movie, Hereditary, was a grim stealth comedy for a select few warped minds, but Midsommar is downright funny, even as its revelers in the Swedish countryside are unmistakably headed for their dooms.

At an early screening of the movie, though, I noticed one person didn’t seem so amused: co-star Jack Reynor, the actor who plays Christian, one-half of an American couple that travels to Sweden for a “summer festival” that’s clearly headed toward some dark climax. As for how we get to there: It soon becomes clear Christian is a manipulative jerk, at times comically daft and only barely there for his girlfriend Dani (Florence Pugh) after she suffers a terrible loss. As the film marches mercilessly toward its psychedelic finale, Christian is seduced by a woman who has been performing pagan rites on him for days, and in a show-stopping orgy sequence, he impregnates her, cheered by the full ranks of the townswomen, all nude, in a barn. He then runs, naked himself in full view of the movie’s endless day, before being paralyzed, stuffed into a bear suit, and boiled alive in a final inferno as Dani watches approvingly.

It feels important here to describe the sequence in full because, horrifying as it is, it is also very funny, and the orgy in particular inspired an almost uncomfortable amount of laughter at my screening. But when Reynor came onstage afterward, he wasn’t laughing. At first, I thought it must be uncomfortable to be paraded in front of a large crowd that just watched you run around naked on a 30-foot screen. (Understandable!) But when Reynor got the mic, he had a question for the crowd. “How many of you think Christian deserved that?” he asked. Many hands shot up, including a woman next to me in the front row. He shook his head and said, “Shame on you.”

Midsommar deliberately toys with the audience in this vein. As a bad boyfriend or bad breakup revenge fantasy, it almost encourages you to revel in Christian’s thorough humiliation and desecration, testing the limits of viewers’ bloodlust. “That’s the trick we’re playing,” Aster told me later in an interview. “It should be cathartic, and there should be a perverse thrill because, you know, having this thing happen that maybe you want to happen because you’re sided with her, but it should also be troubling just how much further the film goes than what his behavior warrants.” He’s right, in my read: The final sequence, which naturally does not shy away from close-ups of burning flesh, is absolutely brutal, but it also, in a way, plays like a happy ending.

Which brings us back to Reynor. At the screening, he offered a muted defense of Christian that was met with notable silence from the audience, essentially arguing the character’s worst offense was not ending his relationship with Dani sooner. Later, I asked him if he was disturbed by the audience’s response. “I really was,” he said. He had only seen the movie himself a couple days earlier; his girlfriend had nightmares. “It’s just weird when you see it. When you’ve lived in a character—I definitely know that there’s things that I’ve done that haven’t always been above board, and I’ve hurt people, and I’ve done the wrong thing in relationships, and I’ve been guilty of not always performing, or doing the right thing, you know? And it’s just interesting to see how quickly people are prepared to condemn somebody for that.” Of those grueling final minutes, he said, “It’s like a 40-minute-long humiliating death.”

Reynor’s reaction made me wonder if Midsommar is the rare horror movie designed to make straight men with checkered pasts squirm more than anyone else. It also made me wonder if the actor had initially misread the character a bit, or the movie’s intentions with him, in a way that highlights its subversive powers; the movie’s early scenes, to me, certainly foretell a worse fate for Dani than Christian. Reynor dismissed the idea he didn’t know what he was getting into—he was effusive about Aster’s vision and said he understood why the sequence had to be so brutal—and then suggested the nude scene was his idea. “I wanted to do the full-frontal,” he told me. “I had suggested it a couple of days before we shot the sex scene. I said, ‘once this sex scene is over, he’s got to come running out of there completely naked and completely vulnerable.’ ” (He cited a past emphasis on female suffering in some movies, specifically, as an inspiration: “I was watching The Last House on the Left recently, the Wes Craven movie, and I was really struck by how explicit and just how expositional the female nudity was, and those horrible, horrible scenes. And then at the end of the film, the whole revenge sequence—one of the guys gets his dick bitten off, but you don’t see it. You know what I mean? There’s no real-life embarrassment that’s kneaded out on any of the male characters.”)

It’s a noble stand for a young actor to take, and Reynor clearly felt a need to own what happens on screen. But Aster remembered the shooting of the nude scene differently. “It came up the day before shooting,” he told me. “I definitely came to him asking, would he be willing to be nude? He needed to be naked, especially because in the scene, there’s so many women exposed, that was totally necessary.” Still, Aster added, “That was just something he was a very, very good sport about, and I will say that he embraced it in a way that was pretty egoless. So I would not take anything away from him as far as his courage in doing it, but I can’t imagine what that scene would be without him being naked.”

Whatever the case, Aster is correct that Reynor is fine as Christian, especially in that there’s no hint of apology for his bad behavior or shame in the performance. If Midsommar does inspire a disturbing number of cheers for Christian’s death, it’s in no small part because Reynor is so good at playing a character who increasingly reveals himself to be a cad. As audiences finally see the movie, the reaction to its final scene seems certain to be divided, but Aster, for his part, was stern in his defense of the laughers. Of the orgy scene in particular, he said, “It’s extremely awkward and uncomfortable. It’s an absurd scene. The hope is that people will not know quite how to react. There’s definitely no correct response—but laughter feels appropriate.”

I doubt Reynor would disagree with Aster, whom he seems to revere, but he didn’t seem eager to repeat the experience at the screening. Leaving our interview, I asked, “Do you plan on watching it with an audience again soon?” He replied: “Not soon.”