At 2 hours and 27 minutes, Midsommar is much longer than your average horror movie. Of course, Midsommar is no average horror movie. The ferociously anticipated follow-up to writer/director Ari Aster’s feature debut Hereditary had a cult following as soon as A24 revealed its earliest promos. Fans who fell hard for Aster’s distinct take on terror were absolutely giddy to see what horrors he might set in the sunny, flower-strewn landscape on the first poster. But even as the film neared its July 3rd release, there were rumors of issues in the editing room. When Film At Lincoln Center announced the world premiere of the Midsommar Director’s Cut not even two months after the heralded film hit theaters, it seemed there might be a rift between Aster and A24. But the emerging horror auteur was all smiles as he presented the extended cut—with nearly 25 additional minutes of footage—at the Walter Reade Theater.
“It’s kind of funny to release a director’s cut like a month after the initial cut. I feel a little like a self-indulgent prick,” Aster told the audience at at Film at Lincoln Center’s Scary Movies XII festival. Then, he gave a bit of background, explaining, “This was a very hard film to cut down. We got to a point where I was very happy with the film, and I didn’t know what to cut. And that was this cut.” That’s a cut that clocks in at 2 hours and 51 minutes with credits. “And then we spend another few months going at it because this is not releasable,” Aster admitted. After the screening, he went into detail, recalling how the assembly cut (the roughest of rough cuts) clocked in at 3 hours and 45 minutes. Once they’d cut about an hour off of that, Aster said, “At that point. I just did not want to touch it. And I started warning people like, ‘We’re going to have a two-hour-and-45-minute movie.’”
But Midsommar was a folk horror movie with no major stars getting a wide release. Add to that a nearly 3-hour runtime, and the film’s already risky niche marketability might be DOA. Of the film’s distributor, Aster said, “A24, who is amazing, they were very gentle with me. They just said, ‘Well, just keep, just keep going.’” After much “chipping away,” Aster and his editor, Lucian Johnston, reached a point where they’d created a theatrical cut that pleased both A24 and its helmer. “I approve of that cut,” he assured, “And I’m happy with it.” But Aster noted of the Director’s Cut, “I do think this is the more complete version of the film. I think the other cut is probably the film with the better pacing, but I do feel this is the fuller picture.”
To have a proper understanding of what that “fuller picture” entailed, I rewatched Midsommar’s theatrical cut the morning before attending its Director’s Cut. Below, I break down the differences between the two.
Below are many, many spoilers for Midsommar.
For the first 20-or-so minutes, there’s no discernible difference between the Midsommar cuts. But things begin to shift once Dani (Florence Pugh) and the boys reach Sweden. A 4-hour car trip that was a quick sequence in the theatrical release has a montage of Dani listening quietly as her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his buds bicker. She gets a “happy birthday” text from a friend, and briefly talks with Josh and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) about runes. She even teases Pelle that he “brainwashed” his anthropologist student friends into this trip, to which Pelle says with a smile, “Josh was brainwashed before I found him!”
Much of the material cut from the theatrical release is like this scene, chiefly focused on character with slight setups for future conflicts, like Christian forgetting Dani’s birthday and the boys’ arrogant ignorance to the threats of the Hårga. In the director’s cut, Mark (Will Poulter) is an even bigger fool, watching TV on his phone instead of attending the first sacrificial ceremony and mocking a stoic commune member by heckling, “What do think that guy would do if I put my thumb up his butt right now?” Plus, his fate gets a bit more foreshadowing in a longer cut of the scene where he pisses on the sacred tree. In the theatrical version, that conflict ends with Christian giggling and Mark flustered. In the Director’s Cut, the woman, who later leads Mark away to play “Skin The Fool,” counsels Pelle in Swedish—so that Mark and the guys can’t understand her—how to convince these outsiders that everything is fine. She promises to handle it. And she will, whisking the ugly American away during that night’s feast.
Josh (The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper) also gets more screentime in the Director’s Cut, most notably, in the scene where Josh and Christian (Jack Reynor) fight over “sharing” a thesis on Hårga. The scene stands out because we’ve seen Christian take, take, take in his relationship with Dani. But here’s a stark example of how he’s a taker in his friendships too. Josh isn’t fearful of Christian leaving like Dani is. So in both versions, he pushes back. But in the director’s cut, he specifically calls Christian out for being an entitled tourist who doesn’t really care about academia or anthropology. “You didn’t even know how to use JSTOR!” Josh explodes in a terrific rant that triggered giggles throughout the theater.
The thread of this academic rivalry is bolstered in the director’s cut. After this fight, when Josh runs to Pelle to intervene, Christian has begun his “research” by trying to interview the pretty redhead Maja, whose been giving him the eye. In the theatrical version, the scene cuts when the two exchange a heated glance. The scene that follows is new. He speaks to her as she and others decorate a pine tree. Because she doesn’t understand English, another member answers his questions about the Ättestupa (the cliff/suicide ritual), telling him, “We grieve and celebrate.” Funny enough, this is an insight into that Christian will not live to appreciate.
Notably, while the boys battle about their theses, the Director’s Cut shows Dani running off to cry alone. Deeply affected by the cliff sequence, she crumples beside the bright yellow temple where the finale will play out. In the theatrical cut, as she inhales to weep, the film cuts away, a callback to her inhaled crying on the plane. Both instances show how Dani’s toxic relationship with Christian urges her to keep her emotions bottled up inside. She can not let go of her pain, because she does not feel “held” by him. This scene, while only seconds longer, proves a stronger setup for the moment when Dani cries over Christian’s sex-tent betrayal. Instead of hiding her pain there, she cries in front of her fellow May Queens, who hold her and empathize, mimicking her cries and sharing in her pain, giving her a long-sought catharsis.
To this end, the most major differences involve Dani and Christian’s relationship and some previously unseen Hårga rituals. Some moments are minor, like an extended scene where it’s made clear that Christian completely forgot Dani’s birthday. In the director’s cut, we see Pelle remind him, and it’s suggested that pitiful birthday cake slice with one candle wasn’t even Christian’s idea, but Pelle scrambling to help. As to rituals, there’s a small meal that follows the opening ceremony on the sun stage. Here the locals and their guests gather on blankets in a rune shape that looks like a capital R lying on its back. They are offered bowls of fruit as one member sings. When asked if this is a prayer, Pelle offers, “He’s giving thanks…Maybe not praying as much as addressing the energy.”
In the post-screening Q&A, Aster noted, “One reason I’m happy with this cut as well is because all of the songs found their way in. We had this really brilliant vocal artist named Jessika Kenny, who specializes in devotional music. And she wrote all of the choral songs that saturate the film. Cutting a lot of those was painful to do, because I was really happy with the work she did.”
More music and pageantry is found deep in the second act, where the biggest chunk—15-minutes straight—was excised for the theatrical cut. This sequence takes place the night after the cliff ceremony. Here, we see some of the theatrics Pelle promised as several members act out a sort-of play. First, a troop of men carries the pine tree from earlier over to a lake. Then, with a flourish, they chuck it into the water as an offering. Next, a man says he hears the Earth Mother rumbling, demanding a greater sacrifice. In a stage-acty voice, an older woman, who will later oversee the May Queen dance, asks what more they could offer? Then, as if on cue, a child steps forth, dressed like a Christmas tree, his body draped in pine limbs and handmade ornaments. He offers himself and is declared “brave.” He is hoisted up by men who place shackles around his ankles and a large stone on his chest, to weigh him down in the water. As they prepare to throw him in after the tree, Dani can’t take it and cries out for them to stop. To her surprise, she is joined by others in the community. But their voices have that same stage-acty quality of performance. The boy is let go, and Dani realizes he was never in real danger. However, there is an unseen danger here.
The boy’s costume hints to what happened to English tourist Connie (Ellora Torchia) in the theatrical cut. In neither version is her death shown onscreen. However, her water-logged corpse, strewn in pine branches now makes sense. What we saw was performance. What we didn’t see—Connie’s drowning—was the real sacrifice.
After the lake scene, Dani and Christian have a big fight. Dani wants to go. She sheds her meekness and tells him directly he and his friends are “opportunistic anthropologists” who were lured here and will not get out alive to share these secret “pagan rituals.” They need to get out before it’s too late! But Christian rejects her remarks, informing her he can’t leave because he’s writing his thesis on Hårga. “I just decided,” he says, echoing the obnoxious lie he told in the beginning when he got caught hiding his Sweden trip from her.
From here, their fight blows past the debate about leaving and becomes about how Christian takes Dani’s kindnesses as a personal insult. In a diatribe that had the audience gasping and cackling, Christian declares she only brought him a flower bouquet to point out how he doesn’t bring her flowers. “I was being kind,” she wails, confused and hurt. In response, he rolls his eyes and accuses her of painting herself as the “selfless altruist” to make him look like a “dick.” It’s more of that pitch-black relationship satire that Aster does so achingly well, and it’s a marvel to watch. Yet, here’s the thing: for all its greatness, nothing I saw in the Director’s Cut was something I felt I missed in the theatrical release.
In the theatrical version, Mark was clearly established as a fool as was Josh the tunnel-visioned scholar. Christian was a dick even without this blow-up, though it could be argued this fight scene makes the fate he bears feel more earned. Dani felt whole without the additional scenes of conversation and crying. Even the rituals felt inessential to Aster’s tale of folk-horror and toxic romance. And yet I revel in the Director’s Cut, which allows us more time to wander in Aster’s enchanting and haunting world of Hårga. Basically, I connected to something he said after the film.
“I like long movies, obviously,” Aster admitted with a slight smile. “I really like to just live in worlds and live in movies. Talking as a viewer, if a movie’s good, I want to stay in it. So, the intention here was always to make something that viewers can live in.”
That, in a nutshell, is the difference between Midsommar and its Director’s Cut. The first is a movie with a world so rich and characters so vibrant, that even at 2 hour and 27 minutes, I love it absolutely, felt satisfied, yet craved more. The Director’s Cut gives fans that more. With it, Aster re-opens the door, inviting us back into Hårga, heartache, and salvation. He gives us greater access to this movie we want to live in, and gives us the space to stretch out, feel the sun on our faces, the dance in our veins, and—just maybe—the grass growing through our toes.
Midsommar: Director’s Cut made its world premiere at Film At Lincoln Center’s Scary Movies XII.
Header Image Source: A24