Director: Ari Aster
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor
If nothing else, horror auteur Ari Aster has proven over the course of two films that he is a master at capturing the essence of grief and suffering. What he does with (or to?) his actors during filming, I am uncertain. But I’ve learned through watching Hereditary and Midsommar just how discomforting and unsettling it can be to hear someone’s seemingly endless wailing, as if they’re striving to be heard by their lost loved from beyond the grave.
This is perfectly encapsulated in the first twenty minutes of Midsommar, a well-shot cocktail of horror and drama with just enough mystery to keep you watching. I’ve always resented the horror cliché of beginning with dread, always preferring a slow descent into madness rather than a full 140-minute barrage of despair. But Midsommar’s inciting incident is so subtly executed and realistically performed, I was not bothered in the slightest, more intrigued and empathetic toward Dani (Florence Pugh), our emotionally dependent and romantically lost heroine, and wanted to see her through her sojourn of overcoming her neglectful oppression.
After the aforementioned incident, and after awkwardly humorous banter between her, her boyfriend (Jack Reynor), and his college companions, we see them go as a group to a Swedish “commune” to witness a midsommar celebration, one that supposedly occurs only once every ninety years.
The premise is begging for caricatures of character idiocy and boring by-the-numbers drivel, but thankfully Aster shows himself to be a disciplined filmmaker. In the first ninety minutes he doesn’t try to keep our attention with predictable jump scares but with small character revelations and establishing this new culture they’ve immersed themselves in. Although they don’t have the depth of Paul Thomas Anderson’s characters, the group of young students are reasonably well-rounded and complete with flaws, passions, and genuine personalities. As for the commune, Aster treats it like an aging home; seemingly as ancient as time itself, and filled with secrets that are only granted to the careful observer. But, like in much of horror fiction, not all the secrets of Midsommar are gratuitous reveals.
As the group initially traversed the commune, I could not be more invested. It brings about the great question of importance regarding traditional versus progressive ideals, and our sheltered fears of the uncanny lifestyles of foreigners. None of these themes are ever spoken out loud, as Aster teaches us to show our stories in cinema, not simply tell them.
However, that didn’t stop this film from overreaching its ambitions. Clocking in at almost two-and-a-half hours, Midsommar eventually beats its themes over our heads, and begins taking its characters in absurd and rather tortuous directions that at times seem to betray the story it was telling in its beginning. One could easily watch this film and conclude that it had two (albeit strong) ideas for a horror drama and meshed them into one movie, hoping for a masterpiece but sacrificing some of its altogether cohesiveness.
After the film was over, I read online that Aster was expressing his frustrations over a painful breakup through Midsommar, calling it “a breakup movie dressed in the clothes of a folk horror movie.” Speaking as a lover of film, I love nothing more than a clever balance between entertainment value, thematic artistry, and something more personal. Although all three of these elements are present in Midsommar, the result was lukewarm, particularly in a third act with overarching themes and a dragging plot weighing the film down into a rut that mainstream audiences will likely label “pretentious.” Self-indulgence is a disease amongst artists, and its frankly disconcerting to see such a clearly talented filmmaker overindulge during his second feature.
There is a wonderful story in Midsommar, one I’d even argue to be better than that of Hereditary. But what Hereditary lacks in originality, Midsommar lacks in realized vision. To surmise, I give both these films the same rating, and encourage Ari Aster to continue his filmmaking endeavors if for no other reason than to learn to properly walk the narrow path between entertainment and artistry without toppling down to one side.