William Jackson Harper
2 Hrs., 27 Mins.
Midsommar July 25, 2019
merican filmmaker Ari Aster is particularly fascinated by death, dysfunctional relationships, and cults. His debut, last year’s excellent Hereditary, is fringed by death and its aftereffects. It begins at a funeral; it goes on to see a child die in a horrific accident. Grief is everywhere. The film's band of actors, headed by an especially expressive Toni Collette, play members of a family who didn’t get along before the film
began and will come to get along even less down the line. Ensuring that the movie’s tacit ugliness get even uglier, Aster reveals toward the end of the movie that, spoiler alert, much of the pain that seeps into the film can at least be partially attributed to the fact that Collette’s mother was part of a Satanic denomination. Aster’s latest project, Midsommar, is an intriguing companion piece. Its protagonist is also left reeling from a tragedy; none of the main characters in the movie — all of whom, on paper, sound like they should be cordial — get along. And the primary villains here, like in Hereditary, are also part of a tight-knit and ritual-dependent sect.
Hereditary and Midsommar aesthetically diverge so drastically, however, that its redundancies at least at first are not on our minds. Hereditary was shadowed and claustrophobic — a movie with a rain cloud following it around like a puppy. Midsommar, in contrast, is agonizingly bright. It’s almost entirely set outdoors, in a rural and divine-looking patch of land in Sweden. It's also deceptively physically expansive. I’d say it looks akin to what I imagine heaven looking like if not for all the eventual carnage. Aster builds worlds we want to get out of but cannot. But world-building and a new style of visual presentation are arguably the only real pleasures or discoveries to be eked out from Midsommar. There is little that the film does that wasn’t done already — and done better — by Hereditary.
The movie works with a vacation-from-hell conceit. It revolves around a group of college students venturing to Hälsingland, Sweden for a midsummer celebration thrown by Hårga, a cultish commune. No one in the group would know about it — especially since the gathering only supposedly happens every 90 years — if not for benevolent newcomer Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who grew up in the area.
The holiday appears to be doomed before it can begin, though. The other men of the group — Christian (Jack Reynor), Mark (Will Poulter), and Josh (William Jackson Harper) — are all academically frustrated (they’re struggling with prewriting their theses) and have different ideas about what this trip is going to be. Christian and Mark hope it will be a hedonistic one where they’ll get to sleep with as many Swedish women as they can before heading home. Josh wants to closely examine the mores of Hårga in order to write about it. Pelle simply wants his friends to enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime festivity, and get reacquainted with his family and friends. Setting in the trip’s dysfunction in stone, narcissistic Christian has pity-invited his understandably fragile girlfriend, Dani (Florence Pugh), whom he would have broken up with a long time ago had her sister not killed herself and their parents just last winter.
You can tell, once the group pulls up to Hårga, which is not much more than a vast field featuring a throng of small buildings and people wearing white unisex gowns, that what’s coming is likely not going to exactly be the friendly festival Pelle had described to his friends. But the cabal, not unrealistically, tries not to be unsettled by some of the strange goings-on that permeate their stay. It would be rude, they tell themselves, to question the consistent offerings of laced drinks, the number of bizarre rituals (one of which involves what appears to be assisted suicide), and their own odd treatment. It’s unfortunately too late when these characters realize that maybe they should, in this instance, conflate cultural difference with malice after all.
Midsommar is a slow burn; it almost crawls to the two-and-a-half-hour mark. There are mini-climaxes; then, finally, there's an explosive, disturbing catharsis. But these moments feel unearned: the film is abounding with shallow characterization and woebegone horror comedy. Aster renders most of the characters not much more than horror-movie types: Pelle is the mysterious friend who isn’t what he seems, and is probably, in fact, dangerous; Christian is the self-involved weasel who perhaps we’d like to see die (in addition to being an emotionally uncaring boyfriend to Dani, he’s also a plagiarist); Mark is so loudly promiscuous that that’s pretty much what leads to his ruin; Dani is a scream queen who appears to have achieved a certain sort of empowerment by the film’s end. (It’s worth noting that she does more than just survive.)
Aster leaves us to infer how the friendships of the men have unfolded over the years; we have to fill in the blanks as to how the declining romantic relationship at the film’s forefront might have played out over the last four years, too. Neuroses, motivations, and inner worlds must also be drawn by the viewer. Whereas conciseness can succeed in terms of characterization, particularly in horror (late-in-the-movie reveals are an indispensable and oft-powerful part of the genre), here it’s too imprecise to be forgivable — as if Aster was unwilling to meaningfully prod the inner-workings of his characters. Dani is by far the most well-defined, and has the heftiest arc. But so much about her is nebulous, just like the men surrounding her. What kind of relationship did she have with her family? What are her goals in life? The last frame of Midsommar further complicates our for the most part indefinite understanding of her.
Hereditary was obviously an homage to movies like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), and The Omen (1976) — so, really, anything in the orbit of the occult thrillers of 40-plus years ago, with a dash of cockeyed comedy. The movie Midsommar pays tribute to most obviously is The Wicker Man, from 1973. Hereditary was a nice synthesizing of sacred texts; it felt like a natural evolution and then some. But Midsommar is dependent on the former film to the extent that you notice what it doesn’t do as well as its spiritual source material. The Wicker Man is also a Technicolored, deeply eccentric horror movie that additionally functioned as a fish-out-of-water farce; it too slowly burned (though at a far-more-succinct 87 minutes) and heavily involved cult shenanigans. Once it reached its conclusion it was easy to take to the knee-jerk settling-into unthinkable horror; it felt right that it was going there, even though it was difficult to predict where that “there” was ending up.
But aside from Midsommar's laudable visuals (the cinematography, by Pawel Pogorzelski, can make even the most clashing of colors harmonize), its outsiders-in-peril comedy isn’t as fully formed or confident (it’s arguably not outlandish enough), and its languid pace is so devoid of palpable anxiety. Evocations of very-real horror, then, vary in how they affect. So much of the time does the movie elicit indifference; it’s a scion that in some ways improves on but mostly cannot do justice to its forebears, however much the plot elements move in different directions.
Aster will make better movies. But what’s frustrating about Midsommar, which was made almost in accordance with Hereditary, is that we can sense a masterpiece sitting under it — a film that might have, if Aster had been granted more time to develop his characters, to better refine his tone and thematic ideas, been more than a visual stunner with a handful of commanding scenes. C+