So, there are slow burning films…and then there are Ari Aster films. At two and a half hours, this film traps you in a state of perpetual anticipation; dreading the worst, but without dramatic musical cues to spoon feed your reactions. By the time the credits roll, you find yourself shell-shocked and only just beginning to fully dissect the cinematic journey you’ve experienced.
Simultaneously immersive while keeping you at arms length, this could have easily become a classic folk horror about ignorant Americans not appreciating piety and entering avoidable situations which lead to their demise. As an alternative, it is somehow presented in a way which keeps you wondering if Aster will stick to horror conventions or subvert them – both of which he does, but in interesting ways.
For one, the main male characters are all studying this commune for their anthropology doctorates, creating a veil of a deeper understanding and appreciation which may save them from a classic horror demise; after a scene in which two elders throw themselves onto a rock in an act of suicide, one of the protagonists explain that they are there to experience a culture different to themselves, and must therefore accept everything the commune does, regardless of their own views. Despite their supposed educational superiority to other horror protagonists, they all soon meet their demise in a fairly classic horror style.
Overall, the whole story casts a questioning eye on the secular nature of Western society, through the way the people of the commune interact with each other, in contrast with how the main characters all interact with the character of Dani.
After losing her whole family to a horrific murder-suicide incident, she is left to deal with the grief alone; her boyfriend intended to break up with her before the incident, and stays with Dani out of guilt, with that initial reluctance reflected in the lack of support that he provides. When we return to the couple some time after her family’s death, she is clearly still struggling, running away to isolate herself when regular explosions of grief and anxiety attacks take over. Her boyfriend Christian is a pretty detestable character throughout, presenting weak character traits, and almost as soon as they arrive in Sweden he guilts her into taking drugs which trigger her anxiety. As the story progresses, he continues to act in a distant way which gets progressively worse throughout the film, acting in a flimsy way to both his girlfriend and friends around him.
Despite the extreme traditions of the commune, Dani finds solace in the support network that they provide, and when she witnesses her boyfriend engaging in a mating ritual, she is able to cry openly and as the other women of the commune cry with her she finds herself able to openly share the burder of her grief in a supportive network which she doesn’t have at home.
By the end of the film, she has found solace and comfort, and has discovered a sense of community which she never had in western society, but what message Aster is trying to make with this is never quite clarified. In interviews, Aster has described it as ‘a break-up movie’ and, at its most basic, Dani has broken free from the toxic relationship that she was in, and has been able to express the grief that she felt in a moment of catharsis.