Halfway through our conversation about his newest movie, Midsommar, Jack Reynor puts down his tea and takes my shoe.
“No! Oh dude! Oh my god! Dude that is one of the sickest things I’ve ever seen,” he says.
He turns the shoe over in his hands, as we share a couch in a New York hotel lounge, surrounded by walls scattered with photographs and paintings. The shoe is from a pair of White Cement IVs gifted from Spike Lee, customized to look like the same pair in his 1989 film Do the Right Thing. There are fewer than 15 pairs in the world, and I carried the shoe in my bag to brandish in this moment. The conversation stops and he takes a selfie with the shoe, saying, “That is the coolest memorabilia I’ve ever seen anyone get.”
Reynor loves movies. That can be said about pretty much anyone working in the film industry, but Reynor loves movies so much he’s started his own Instagram-based film club called Jack Reynor’s Cinemania, where he unabashedly geeks out with other movie obsessives. He picks a movie and hosts live chats about each film. When we meet up, he’s deciding between The Naked Prey or Do the Right Thing (both feature elegant parallels to the themes of Midsommar). But this serendipitous moment—and the Do the Right Thing Block Party in Bed-Stuy the following weekend—sealed the deal for him. “Now that you’ve shown me this, it’s gotta be Do the Right Thing.”
Raised in Ireland, the 27-year-old actor has spent a majority of his life building a cinematic knowledge that allows him to constantly draw parallels and connections between any film, any era, or any genre. His latest film, Midsommar, is absolutely one of those movies that deserves such rigorous analysis. The movie, director Ari Aster’s bright and kaleidoscopic follow-up to Hereditary, arrives in the midst of a new golden era of horror. During conversations with Reynor and Aster, the actor and director discuss why the genre is having such an artistic boom, the power of storytelling, and Reynor’s climactic—and bold—full frontal nude scene at the end of Midsommar.
In 2018, Hereditary—Aster’s debut feature film—was accurately hailed as one of the most terrifying films of the decade. Though its star Toni Collette was somehow ignored by the Academy Awards, Hereditary remained a powerful statement about the future of the genre.
In Midsommar, Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) are in the final stages of a relationship that’s run far past its course. Christian is nearly resolved to leave Dani when she faces a massive tragedy, then he decides to stick by her as she recovers. Months later, still reeling from her private pain, Dani joins Christian and his fellow anthropology students on a trip to an isolated Swedish town to study their unique mid summer festival. What starts as a charming, eccentric series of traditions by the locals quickly devolves into inescapable madness that pulls Dani and her friends into an entirely new sense of reality, and demands more from each of them than they can survive.
In many ways, Midsommar is a break up movie. Not only did Aster write it while digging through the remains of his last relationship, but the expired relationship between Dani and Christian is what acts as the black hole around which the story orbits. Like in most horror films, the characters don’t know they’re in a horror film. So Reynor chose to play Christian as if the character were in a break up film. At least partly.
“I’m performing in the scenes with [Pugh] in a way that’s really callous and really cold and it just feels nasty and it feels there’s something of a vignette of the complications of being in a broken relationship doing that,” he says. “So thank god we could get off set and get home and make dinner for each other and have a drink, which was good. But it did feel like a break up movie, among other things.”
Much of the success of Midsommar is that over the course of 180 minutes, it slowly raises the bar of what is horrifying until you find yourself ecstatically nodding along in the final moments of pure insanity. Each moment of horror is telegraphed so far in advance that you’ve not only seen it coming, but you’ve accepted it before you even see it. There’s a sense of inevitability that is delivered with a measure of calm so that you’re almost never surprised, until you surprise yourself by your own ability to accept these horrors.
Reynor’s last act in the film is a 40-minute sequence that involves nudity, butchery, pain, paralysis, and a lot of fire. It’s humiliating, terrifying, and repulsive. After being drugged and tricked into a pagan sexual ceremony, Reynor finds himself running for his life fully in the searing daylight of this small Swedish community.
“There is a kind of sexual violence in it and there’s a humiliating exposition that happens in it and that historically has been reserved for women in films, and I saw it as an opportunity to turn it on its head,” Reynor says. “I’ve seen so many films where the female actors in the movies are being so horribly humiliated in these death scenes where there’s so much sexual violence and it was probably about time that it was the other way.”
Whether it’s The Last House on the Left, Cannibal Holocaust, I Spit on Your Grave, or another hundred horror films that form the base that generations of filmmakers have built on top of, each of those movies feature extended sequences or quick images of broken female bodies, that are almost never avenged. Reynor saw this lengthy sequence in Midsommar as an opportunity to show a different option, and remind us that horror isn’t about visiting specific horrors against specific people. Horror can be universal.
Reynor is quick to point out that he found his experience as a man filming these scenes to have been easier than actresses he’s worked with in similar situations: “What I go through in that scene and making this film is nothing like the things that I’ve seen women go through in making films where this is an element, you know what I mean?”
Later that day, I spoke to Aster in a nondescript conference room whose only decoration was a large image of Florence Pugh in tears.
“He is being objectified. He is almost incidental. He’s necessary for what they’re doing, but he’s being used by these women,” Aster says. “This is his humiliation and it is a big thing in the genre to humiliate women, so that was something that I was thinking about: turning the tables in that way. It is such a tradition in horror films to torture and mutilate and humiliate women.”
As Domina Franco, a New York-based sex educator and writer explains, the treatment of women in horror movies is often a reflection of what’s happening in our real world.
“Horror movies are only actually a reflection of what’s happening in society, but a little on steroids. Women’s bodies, and femme identifying people, get insanely mangled and there’s an incredible amount of sexual violence against women in the genre,” Franco tells me. “But I think that’s just true of everything, because media is simply the reflection of what is happening in real life but seen through a creative guise of the human mind.”
This is also what makes the flipped scenario in Midsommar terrifying and shocking.
“Flipping the script on who is oppressed and who is the oppressor is always going to be horrific because it’s always going to be horrific to think about the oppressed becoming the oppressor. It’s inherently terrifying because it says that the oppressed may not have their life the way they want their life,” Franco says. “But the truth is there is this massive question mark of what would be the retribution of the centuries of oppression that women or femme bodied people have experienced? What would the oppressor face as retribution?”
There’s also the question of the predominate whiteness of Midsommar. As my allotted time with Aster nears its end, I make sure to ask about the whiteness of the film, of which there are only three people of color. Aster chooses to be late to his next appointment to chat about what’s a pretty blaring asterisk hanging over the film.
“You will notice that the white members of the visiting community are used for more than just their bodies to be sacrificed, whereas the others are thrown aside… It’s in the margins of the film and it’s kind of consistently in the periphery, so I don’t want to talk too explicitly about it because the film is not a polemic, although there are politics strewn in. But, yes, there are illusions to Swedish history, especially the last century,” Aster says. There is a Nazi book on prominent display in an early scene. The banner that you see in the trailer as the group travels to the village says, “Stoppa Massinvandringer till Hälsingland,” Stop Mass Immigration to Hälsingland. “That’s definitely there,” Aster says. “I’m glad people are catching it. It’s an important part.”
In the last few years, films like It Follows, The Babadook, Hereditary, Get Out, and Us have fully brought the horror genre—which was once lead by the meta narratives of Wes Craven, handed off for the gore of Eli Roth, then the creep of James Wan—into a new, more cathartic, more aesthetically beautiful era. Midsommar is certainly deserving of being mentioned as part of the new class.
“I don’t want to say I’m doing it in a ‘Post Modern’ way, but in a way where you recognize the tropes and instead of offering twists on them or having left turns, how do we go exactly where the audience is expecting to go but have the surprise be an emotional surprise: how it feels to get there?”
And thank god—we need new ways to process these horrors, because we have new horrors to process. Midsommar arrives at a time when the daily news offers no shortage of real-life horrors.
“The political systems and social structures that we’ve been living in for almost a century, since the Second World War, that’s dissolving from where I’m standing,” Reynor says. “I think the beauty that we’re seeing entwined in the horror in these films is a statement that it’s difficult to separate one from the other, and it’s difficult to see what’s coming down the pipe.”
This new generation of horror films are visually beautiful, but for Aster, it’s not about making a statement or a movement. It’s much simpler than that. “I just don’t see why any movie should not be beautiful. I just don’t understand the impulse to make a grungy, sloppy movie where the visuals are incidental and you’re just telling a story and as bluntly… I just don’t understand,” he says. “It’s not even really about bringing beauty to horror films, I don’t see the point in putting two years of your life into something that isn’t making it as well as you can.”
Reynor may have the chops to do the international blockbuster franchise superstar actor thing, but if that’s his aim, he’s going about it in a funny way. His CV shows a young man hopscotching between genres and themes, taking cheeky parts in passionate, smaller films, choosing roles that are more than a typecast. And when he’s not working, he’s glued to his screen, studying the nooks and crannies of film history.
Though he has 14,000 Twitter followers, Reynor stopped tweeting in mid 2017 when, he says, “I just found it to be really toxic and it was just echo chambers of people.”
Instead, he shifted to Instagram where he started the account Jack Reynor’s Cinemania to engage with fellow film lovers. “I watch an awful lot of movies and I don’t have people immediately available to talk to about them all the time,” he explains. “So I was like, here’s an opportunity, here’s where I can sit down and I can watch a film, I can think of a film I love and I can just write everything that I love about it and I can make a post about it and see what people have to say.” That’s where he leaves his film reviews, fields questions from fans and fellow watchers, and engages in an ongoing discourse about his favorite form of storytelling.
“I’ve never lost interest in film. Since I was 5 years of age, it’s been my life,” Reynor says. “I’m fascinated by storytelling. I come from Ireland, obviously, which is a superstitious place where they call us the Land of Saints and Scholars. You know, one of the most valuable cultural tools in Ireland is the ability to tell a story, and to tell it well, and to captivate the people who you tell a story with.
“With,” he says. Not “to,” but “with.”
Later in July, Reynor’s new short film, Bainne, which he wrote and directed, will premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh. The film, which stars his friend and Midsommar co-star Will Poulter, focuses on The Great Famine in Ireland. Based off two paragraphs snuggled into a folktale by Lafcadio Hearn, Poulter’s character’s loosened fellowship with his community is pushed even further when on the edge of scarcity, but a benign spirit inspires his journey to coming back together with them.
“There was a culture of silence around the famine,” Reynor says. “Nobody wrote songs about it, nobody told stories about any of that stuff, but superstition exploded in Ireland after that in the 19th century. There were ghosts everywhere after the famine, and obviously the shame of what the Catholic Church, what they just hammered into us, only furthered that culture.”
It’s this exact obsession with storytelling that makes Midsommar such a fascinating experience. For all its depth and symbolism, and despite its beauty and terror, it’s a film that’s at its core about people—two people who should have broken up a long time ago.
“We’ve all been both of those people,” Reynor says. “We’ve all been the person who is in need, who needs connection with somebody else and needs comfort in their grief and maybe at times can be overly needy. And then we’ve also been the person who doesn’t have the capacity to provide what somebody else needs.”
Every story can ultimately be distilled down to its most human terms, and nobody knows that better than a movie buff.