Why I’ve become a Christian apologist in Midsommar

One of the more recent memes to spring up on Twitter — before all this nonsense about hexing the moon — was yet another wear attempt at a “gotcha” by film nerds. I’m talking, of course, about the “The movie villain / The actual villain” meme.

Some were funny, but most were tiresome. A few bothered me, mainly because I take movies and television too seriously. One was the assertion that Christian Hughes (Jack Reynor) was the “real villain” in Midsommar, despite the Harga being the “movie villain.”

It’s wrong for a few reasons; for one, the film already makes a case on the surface for Christian being the “villain” and the Harga simply being a means to an end. It’s up to the viewer to see beyond that. I can (kind of) understand a person not being able to think deeper, but for them to think that they’ve gotten one up on the filmmakers is a whole other issue.

Midsommar is one of my favourite films; I’m a huge fan of what Ari Aster has doing with the horror genre. When I first saw Midsommar in theatres (alone on a hot night, which I highly recommend) I had fun hating Christian. But it didn’t take long to realize that the movie wanted me to be comfortable hating Christian. It’s true that there’s nothing truly likeable about him. But the film, dizzying and captivating as it is, lulls you into believing that being a terrible boyfriend, a coward and a lazy academic is reason enough to paralyze him, mutilate him and burn him alive. The entire film is set up for you to sympathize with Dani (Florence Pugh). But the interpretation of Christian as the main villain might be an indication that viewers sympathized with Dani to the point of being manipulated along with her.

Midsommar is a film that weaves complex relationship dynamics into a traditional folk horror narrative. And Christian is certainly a tool. By “tool,” I mean he is an asshole, but also something of a plot device. Who he is does not matter, particularly to the Harga. He could have been anyone, but the Harga is probably grateful that he is not a good man. They can more easily convince Dani that she has triumphed over an abusive relationship as she (presumably) assimilates into them at the end of the film.

Seeing myself in Christian (and Dani)

One of the difficult things about the topic of emotional abuse is that we understand and accept abuse as a topic that is not up for debate and is not subjective. And yet, Christian’s actions, choices and words which have been labelled as emotional abuse earn this label mostly based on the outcome (how Dani feels as a result) rather than his actions.

Their confrontation after the party, for example, isn’t especially problematic because of the immature and passive-aggressive way Christian handles it. It’s problematic because Dani defaults to making everything her fault and apologizing. We don’t know why Dani does this, but it’s telegraphed that she has her own mental health problems independent of her relationship (even prior to her family’s death).

None of this is to say that Christian is a good boyfriend, that he does good things during the movie or that Dani was, in any way, worse to him than he is to her. It’s simply to say that painting Christian as the sole villain of the film shows a profound misunderstanding of the film’s thesis, Aster’s intent and also, to put it bluntly, the fact that the Harga are fucking white supremacist murderers (this is not an interpretation. This is not a headcannon. This is Aster’s intent).

The worst sin that Christian commits — willingly — is being a passive-aggressive, conflict-averse baby who does not break up with his girlfriend when he’s supposed to, including immediately after she experiences life-altering trauma. We’re not given any indication that their relationship is turbulent on the surface — their interactions in the prologue don’t show screaming fights, blatant issues of jealousy, pettiness or distrust. They simply do not work anymore and neither of them can communicate that maturely.

I’ve been in a relationship like Christian and Dani’s. No, not one in which one of us endured extensive familial trauma and then chose to have the other sewn into a carcass and murdered in a fire. I mean one that lasted too long, one that was good for the first year or two and then petered out. Instead of breaking it off, we became toxic to one another. I started lying, even about small things, usually with a desire to start the one last, big fight to end it all. He became clingy, overbearing and a master guilt-tripper who managed to make me feel awful just for going to a party without him. For the last year, all we did was try to outfox one another through a series of bad decisions and subsequent apologies. When I ended it, in a way it didn’t matter who had. In Midsommar terms, he would view me as the Christian, and I would view him the same way.

Years later, a friend of his I’ve stayed friends with told me that it “seemed like the relationship should have ended sooner than it did.” The statement didn’t bother me (it was correct), but I did ponder afterward — how many relationships that come to an end do so exactly when they should? The majority of breakups aren’t one definitive axe swing, but an arduous, excruciating death. And during that time, what we do to each other is usually a revelation of our worst, most inept selves.

It’s widely known that Aster decided to take Midsommar from a simple slasher to an arduous opera about spurned lovers after he went through his own breakup. He has also stated that he views himself as both Christian and Dani, and that both of them do things that are understandable and identifiable.

A side-note on the director’s cut

I am a fan of the director’s cut of Midsommar because I love movies that are excruciatingly long and slow-paced, but one of the big differences in the director’s cut is that we see more tension between Christian and Dani. You can decide whether or not the director’s cut is cannon; my view is, if Aster didn’t feel as though the director’s cut reflected his true, complete vision, he would not have released it in theatres or made it widely available on home media.

Is Christian that much worse in the director’s cut? Sort of. The biggest scene is one extra fight between him and Dani, in which he is at his height of passive-aggressive and petty. That’s the scene that, according to many, somehow makes him more deserving of being raped and murdered. I was it as another cementing of how dysfunctional this relationship is, but not anything worse than what we’ve already seen. (I always figured this scene cut not because it makes Christian look worse, but because Dani is still hell-bent on leaving the colony, and it becomes difficult to justify how quickly she assimilates after that).

A more damning scene is the extended sequence in Siv’s home, when he shows at least some degree of knowledge and willingness to engage in sex with Maja. However, while Christian’s awareness of the situation might mean that he had more intent toward infidelity in general, it doesn’t make his rape less of a rape. Christian is under the influence of psychedelics and is under great mental distress. His reaction after penetrating Maja is one of confusion and fear — Christian does not want to be in that situation, and did not have control. Christian was raped, even if Dani didn’t realize it.

Is Dani Ardor a modern-day Jack Torrance?

Here’s where I start to lose people. It’s practically where I start to lose myself. For the record, I would be remiss if I didn’t credit the podcast We Hate Movies with a joke in their episode on The Shining that Aster might have been inspired by Kubrick’s film — because Aster loves putting naked old ladies, not unlike the tub lady, into his movies.

But the more I thought about it, the more I started to draw parallels between the two (yes, my mind also wants to because they’re two of my favourite movies). I will admit (begrudgingly) that these stories overall are very different. In particular, role of the deuteragonist is entirely different. Whereas Christian, in Aster’s words, is “kind of a nothing character” who has so little agency that his death hangs a lampshade on it, Wendy Torrance in The Shining reclaims her autonomy and becomes the hero of the story against all odds.

Nevertheless, Dani Ardor, although gentle and good-hearted, has one thing in common with Jack Torrance: the crux of the film is that she is identified by an evil force (or collective) as vulnerable enough to be manipulated into carrying out evil deeds. Both films believe in determinism; in Jack’s case, he has “always been the caretaker,” in Dani’s case, she is made to feel that the Harga has always been ready to be her family.

Jack would never be a good father or husband, whether or not he became the Overlook caretaker. The Overlook was a means to catharsis. Kubrick’s film offers commentary on the lies we live with in an effort to preserve our families, the masks we wear and the raw desires hidden underneath.

The same is true for the Harga, and what they do to Dani and Christian’s relationship. The Harga enabled the worst in both of them, and accelerated Dani’s desires to free herself. By using Christian in the fertility ritual, in Dani’s eyes he became a manifestation of her fears. It brings her to a place of desperation, and this film equate desperation with depravity.

Lastly, both films’ evil forces are racist at heart; it’s more obvious in The Shining, where Grady encourages Jack to kill Hallorann and refers to him as a slur (to which Jack does not react. It’s unclear if Jack was always outwardly racist or if the hotel has simply allowed him to be more comfortable in his racism). In Midsommar, the Harga do not use slurs and are not outwardly hostile to their non-white visitors, but the first two people they kill are Brown, and they soon kill Josh as well. While there are other reasons for using Christian for the fertility ritual, Aster has said without a doubt that Simon or Josh would not have been used; anyone who gets a look at the commune and the past May Queens should be able to tell that only one kind of person is welcome here.

All that is to say, Midsommar and The Shining are still very different movies, but they absolutely share themes of determinism as well as a protagonist who is vulnerable to manipulation. The reaction of the partner is where the two films differ, and as much as Christian is a tool, it’s hard to feel truly angry at a literal tool.

I have a lot of feelings about movies and TV shows that would be embarrassing if it weren’t 2020.

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