A BAD BREAKUP, SOME BAD DRUGS, A GREAT HORROR FILM.
Director: Ari Aster
Writer: Ari Aster
2 HOURS 27 MINUTES
REVIEW BY CHRISTIAN VALENTIN
Midsommar is very different from Ari Aster’s debut film. They both share a knack for uncomfortable drama, masterful use of violence, and unsettling imagery deployed with calculated precision. But while Hereditary was a constantly crushing vice of dread and unease, this movie is lighter, odder, more distant and traditional, relying more on surreal weirdness and a surprising thread of dark humor.
A couple travels to Sweden to visit a rural hometown's fabled mid-summer festival. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult.
Where Midsommar diverts most notably from its predecessor is in characters and tone. Unfortunately, the characters were the weakest part of the film for me. For the first half, particularly the first act, Midsommar’s protagonists are imbued with the same unflattering humanity that made Hereditary’s dysfunctional family so compelling. And then a pivotal, horrific incident occurs, and aside from Dani, these people cease to feel like real humans or characters. Her friends are reduced to slasher movie victims: shallowly defined by one-note personalities, acting in unrealistic ways, making bad decisions that push the plot forward rather than feel motivated by characterizations. It doesn’t help that, again aside from Dani, none of those characters are likable; they’re either insufferable jerks or are extraneous to the point of only seeming like fodder. This works in the context of the themes and narrative, but it means that the characters feel distant and cold. Midsommar lacks the intimate focus that made Hereditary’s flawed family so relatable and engaging. However, Florence Pugh’s Dani is fantastic as the emotional core of the story. When the other characters are frustrating to watch, her journey is always engrossing and sympathetic.
Hereditary also benefited from having a ceaseless sense of unease and inescapable doom. The domestic drama and occult horror were tightly interwoven, and each new tragedy ratcheted up the tension of both facets. Midsommar is not an ever-tightening vice, but a trip into a gradually more bizarre nightmare. After a harrowing opening, the plot leisurely winds through festive cheer, exposition, inner-group conflict, and ample offerings of hallucinogens. The sun-drenched festivities and inviting atmosphere aren’t immediately ominous. If anything, it’s our familiarity with cult horror that makes such patient hosts and communal joy seem uneasy. That’s what most separates this from a movie like The Wicker Man. Devious cult shenanigans was a surprise twist in 1973; here, every line, new ritual, and friendly face is a cause for wary concern.
There’s a surreal horror to Midsommar’s most brutal scenes, to see nightmarish imagery imbued with such pleasantness and even twisted beauty.
Humor from the juxtaposition of confused outsiders and frolicking residents is also quite common, as well as from Will Poulter’s character. The comedic elements and relaxed pace result in a disarming sense of calm, one that is shattered when Midsommar unleashes its gruesome violence. Much like Hereditary’s most infamous scene, the moments of violence in Midsommar are always a jarring slap in the face. Their grotesque potency is increased by the movie’s serene atmosphere. Like the characters themselves, the eruptions of gore - portrayed with bluntly uncomfortable clarity - sharply contrast with the hospitality and ecstatic rituals. There’s a surreal horror to Midsommar’s most brutal scenes, to see nightmarish imagery imbued with such pleasantness and even twisted beauty.
No, it's not like Hereditary, but it is unmistakably an Ari Aster film. Midsommar builds its madhouse drama on the foundation of Aster's twisted sensibilities. It's a different aesthetic, different tonal coat of paint, but the place still smells the same, and the plumbing hasn't changed a bit. Cinematically this means tragedy as a launchpad into horror, horror as catharsis, and that catharsis as the delivery system for deeply unsettling imagery.
But you'll laugh too.
I'm not joking when I say Midsommar was one of the funniest films I've seen all year. Maybe chalk it up to my dark sense of humor, or my love of the absurd, but it definitely tickled nonetheless. And not always in-between moments of brutality and dread—sometimes the levity arrived right smack dab in the middle of them—lending a wild emotional juxtaposition to the whole affair (I don't think I've ever laughed this hard during an explicit sex scene). Further, this bittersweetness also extends to the film's use of light, both literally and figuratively.
For one, all atrocities are displayed as clearly and plainly as possible, preventing the audience from escaping any of Midsommar's delivered gruesomeness. And for another, all intentions (twisted or otherwise) are plastered absolutely everywhere; painted on walls, woven into tapestry, fingerpainted onto the pages of sacred ritualistic texts — the evil in the film is hiding in plain sight, making the fact that every victim seems to always be caught off guard, hilariously preposterous.
Still, for as funny as it tends to be, there's certainly no shortage of shock value found within. In fact, I'd wager that in spite of its grin, Midsommar will come across for many as the more immediately disturbing film between it and Aster's first feature outing. Sure I speak highly to its absurdly dark sense of humor, but nearly every laugh was either preceded by or followed with an audible gasp. And truth be told, just like with Hereditary, I'll likely live out the rest of my life scarred to some capacity by the unshakable imagery, imprinted on my mind with all the subtlety of an extra-large wooden acme hammer to the face.
I can't thank Ari Aster enough for it.
An entirely different beast than Hereditary but once again Ari showcases people dealing with a multiple array of personal struggles in a masterful way. Heavy themes are backed by beautiful cinematography and visceral violence. It’s a lot to process and I still taking it all in. One thing is certain, this is no sophomore slump.