Review: Midsommar (2019)
Like his debut feature, Hereditary, Ari Aster’s latest film, Midsommar, is stylistically impressive at the least. It is crafted with a formal precision and self-conscious artfulness that is not usual for the horror genre, even if the film could be as easily classified “relationship drama” as “horror.” Blood and violence are present, to be sure, but not in the same manner as you’ll find in Blumhouse features, slasher reboots, or films from The Conjuring cinematic universe. Displays of grief are front-and-centre and the themes of the film carry as much weight as the thrills—to an almost parodic extent. In fact, it’d be easy to dismiss the artfulness of a film like Midsommar as pretension, but that’d also be shortsighted, or at least would discount how much of the film functions effectively as horror, even if the formal obsessiveness of the filmmaking is masking a bit of artistic myopia.
At its heart, Midsommar is about the strained relationship between Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor). Their relationship is long past the expiry date in the opening moments of the film, but after Dani suffers a family tragedy, the relationship becomes a makeshift rockbed of stability. Dani ends up tagging along with Christian and his friends (William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter) to a midsummer festival at a Swedish commune. At first, the festival seems like a folksy way for her to forget her worries. Unfortunately (and predictably), the festival is more sinister than advertised. For Aster, the external specifics of the festival come to mirror Dani’s internal torment. It promises stability, community, and liberation from grief: all things she longs for in the aftermath of her personal tragedy.
That tragedy comes in the film’s horrific cold open when her sister kills herself and her parents by piping in carbon monoxide from the cars in the garage. As in Hereditary, the domestic horror is more unsettling than the possibly-supernatural horror that is to come. This is partially because Aster gives his characters sufficient rope to suffer emotionally on screen; few directors are so willing to stare directly at emotional devastation and let that devastation play out at length. Such an open wound is disturbing to witness in any film, let alone to the lengths that Midsommar lets it play out.
The quintessential image of Aster’s films—that of a woman howling in sorrow—captures this grief. Josh Larsen of Filmspotting perceptively shows how the image captures the spiritual darkness that can fill the void caused by trauma over at Think Christian. In Hereditary, that void is filled by demonic spirits, while in Midsommar, the pagan community exploits it, filling Dani with a sense of personal release that masks the fact that she’s now prey to more sinister designs. In effect, Aster weaponizes the idea of emotional liberation that is so central to millennials, showing how the need for personal release can make you prey to evil and blind to the suffering of others.
Of course, part of the myopia of Midsommar is that this design is obvious from early on. The film is almost as egocentric as Dani. For all of Aster’s formal talent (and there is plenty), he creates hermetically-sealed story worlds that are as restricted as the miniatures that Toni Collette’s character works on in Hereditary. Every element of the world is a part of the narrative engine chugging along towards an inevitable outcome. The protagonists do not interact with any other characters who are separate from the film’s sinister design. Aster forges a closed world where every encounter plays into the horror. This creates a claustrophobic atmosphere, to be sure, but it also makes the world seem artificial, which runs counter to the honest emotions of suffering he explores.
As well, for a film that runs almost two and a half hours, the lack of narrative mystery is disappointing. Unlike in Hereditary, where the film pivots on a few crucial scenes in the middle, Midsommar tips its hand much earlier, letting the viewer see where the film is heading, robbing it of much of its catharsis and horror. Aster is a clockwork filmmaker, where everything in his films seem deliberate, but it’s clear that his work as a screenwriter lags behind his work as a director.
What this all amounts to is that Midsommar is disturbing moment by moment, and frequently astounding in its craft, but lacking as a whole. At least Aster’s considerable formal skills are on full display throughout. From the opening moments, he’s playing with meticulous framing to underline emotional turmoil and using jarring editing rhythms to keep the viewer off balance. The opening frames of the film are gorgeous and haunting, gliding over Dani’s parents home as she leaves them a voicemail. As if channeling John Carpenter, Aster utilizes the smoothness of the steadicam to make his shots seem like the POV of a sinister spirit, a dreadful gaze watching over the puny mortals of the film.
Later, during the actual festival happenings, his exact framing subtly emphasizes the unnatural perfection of the festival celebrations, how everyone moves in unison, looking much the same as each other. It’s too exact to be as natural as it claims to be. The film peaks during a dance around the Maypole, where the camera whirls along with Dani, focusing on her face and the constant twirling of the dancers. It’s hypnotic. Aster also displays a surprising talent for comedy, which is welcome after the dourness of Hereditary. Moments even stray into camp proving that there’s more to Aster’s tonal command than previously evident. At every turn, Bobby Krlic’s score conjures the right tone of horror or awe.
And yet, despite all the superlatives of the craft, Midsommar cannot help but feel mildly disappointing. It may be that behind all the exacting detail and emotional perception lies a seeming condescension to the genre it inhabits. Horror is often known for being messy and base, more stirred by emotions than intellect; almost all horror films are B-movies, even the ones that don’t gleefully indulge in genre tropes. But Midsommar belongs to the “elevated horror” subgenre, which seems adamant to erase the imperfections from the horror genre and make it “important,” even as it robs the genre of much of its appeal. Sometimes, films that classify as “elevated horror” are exceptional, such as The Witch or It Follows, but other times, they are insufferably literal and boring in their faux-artistry, such as last year’s Suspiria remake. Filmmakers can get lost in their own little playground by approaching horror this way. They can endlessly indulge their own obsessions and forget about the core purpose of horror in the first place, which is to scare people.
Midsommar has many of the same qualities as Hereditary, but what it lacks is that film’s scares. This is what keeps me from praising this film more whole-heartedly. Midsommar is well-crafted and engrossing, to be sure, but it is rarely scary. To put audiences through such a marathon of emotional despair and torment on screen without an abundance of thrills seems a little rude.
6 out of 10
Midsommar (2019, USA/Sweden)
Written and directed by Ari Aster; starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter.