Movie Review: Midsommar.
Ari Aster’s new horror film grabs you visually, but lacks deeper roots to sustain interest.
I was excited for Midsommar. Director Ari Aster did some really surprising things with Hereditary, and seemed poised to establish himself on the horror scene like Jordan Peele had with his sophomore effort, Us. Unfortunately, Midsommar burns away in the glare of the summer sun. Strong cinematography, acting, and narrative themes are blown away like chaff. By the end of the two and a half hour journey through Midsommar, I felt like I’d seen most of the film before in better places, and barely registered where this movie offered up anything distinctive.
Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) seem headed towards an inevitable break up until tragedy strikes. Driven back together by the loss of her family, Dani accompanies Christian to Sweden, where he and his college friends are to study a rare Midsummer folk ritual. As the Americans are welcomed in by the isolated commune, they are confronted with bizarre practices, macabre imagery, and a drug soaked ritual that may demand the ultimate sacrifice from them.
The first half of Midsommar had some real promise. We get some excellent cinematography, and the film has a visual aesthetic that grabs you right away. Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor play very flawed characters with aplomb. Dani is too eager to gaslight herself for Christian. Christian is selfish, but shows an unexpected empathy as he comes through in the end for Dani when tragedy strikes. There was a chance these two could actually grow to not be toxic for each other.
The set design in Midsommar is excellent. The city scenes early feel alienating and just familiar enough to be really terrifying. The alternation of lush greenery and sere desolation in Sweden was really evocative. That everything takes place in the bright glare of daylight was a bold choice that Aster uses to great effect early on. Unfortunately, the early promise does not bear fruit.
This is My Design?
The visual imagery of the final arc was uncomfortably reminiscent of TV’s Hannibal. A character has his internal organs sculpted into an artistic tableau…which was nearly identical to a scene in the show. Other characters have their body parts removed and replaced with flowers and roots…which mirrored, again, scenes from the show. One plot point that develops late in the film is when Christian basically swipes his friend Josh’s (William Jackson Harper) academic work. If that scene was meant to be an acknowledgment of all the “borrowing” going on in this film, it doesn’t work.
I Can See For Miles.
Midsommar really baffled me with how unsubtle it is. As a “descent into pagan ritual and insanity” film, it felt as if Ari Aster had not seen any of the films his movie shares a heritage with…or had seen them and wanted to copy them. The Wicker Man exists, and is pretty well established as the archetype of this genre of movie. That movie came out in 1973. Midsommar basically using its beats without any twists or variations felt disrespectful.
As a horror movie, exactly one scare managed to surprise me, and it was of the Blumhouse “image appears suddenly behind a character” ilk. It was not set up, did not re-occur; the definition of a cheap jump scare. The rest of the horror felt lifted from other sources, as we’ve alluded to.
Regression to the Mean.
The narrative arc of Midsommar doesn’t challenge or subvert any expectations. Unless this is literally the first movie of this type you’ve ever seen, there’s nothing novel. Every character winds up exactly how you’d predict after having met them. Every plot point comes at you with no subterfuge; the film actually gives much of its interesting bits away via extremely literal tapestries. If you see an image in the background, you’ll see it later recreated in real life. It was incredibly formulaic.
There was some really interesting plot points set up in the first hour of this film. They wound up not mattering. Strong, nuanced performances early on from Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, and Vilhelm Blomgren all peter out into flat, stereotypical characters. Trippy visuals and inventive cinematography likewise disappear upon contact with the by-the-books final arc. Midsommar put out some gorgeous flowers early, but a lack of deep roots spoiled the harvest.