A film review by Craig J. Koban October 20, 2019

MIDSOMMAR jj
½

2019, R, 140 mins.

 

Florence Pugh as Dani  /  Jack Reynor as Christian  /  Will Poulter as Josh  /  William Jackson Harper as Mark  /  Anna Åström as Karin

Written and directed by Ari Aster

MIDSOMMAR is the latest horror thriller from writer/director Ari Aster, who previously helmed the eerily atmospheric, frequently shocking, impeccably acted, but creatively inconsistent HEREDITARY.  That supernatural drama most assuredly introduced Aster as an absolute master of terrifying mood and chilling tension, but the film, at least for me (and I'm in the minority) really fell apart in its final act, which seemed to traverse down a rabbit hole of overused and obligatory genre troupes, which ultimately made it a hard film for me to wholeheartedly recommend.  Still, Aster's abilities as a cinematic craftsman on pure technical levels was unmistakable.  I didn't find HEREDITARY to be as bold, refreshing, and bravura of a horror film as most, but it made me take notice of its filmmaker and left me nevertheless craving to see more out of him. 

This brings me back to MIDSOMMAR, which could not be anymore different (at least in terms of narrative) as what Aster conjured up beforehand.  It's a folk horror film with a decidedly Swedish flavor, and it lingers with as much panic inducing and unnerving dread as HEREDITARY before it.  Perhaps even more so this go around, Aster's follow-up fright fest continues to establish the filmmaker's unimpeachable abilities as a stylist, meticulously conjuring up scene after scene of sinister and unpredictable suspense that becomes for distressing the more the story unfolds.  More commendably, MIDSOMMAR aims to go against the aesthetic grain of so many other witless horror films on autopilot that play today, and one that favors ultra slow burn tactics, increasingly racketed up tension and a hypnotic, almost dreamlike aura of unease as opposed to perfunctory jump scares and mindless bloodshed.  Still, some of my main misgivings with this film lies directly with its busy, sometimes ill focused scripting and a frankly endurance testing running time that rarely, if ever, justifiably defends itself.  It's too bad, really, because there's a masterpiece buried underneath this problematically executed production. 

The overreaching premise of MIDSOMMAR is a simple, yet juicy one that has echoes of past horror thrillers like THE WICKER MAN: A group of college friends make a pilgrimage to Sweden to attend a festival that only occurs every 90 years, but nightmarishly find themselves imprisoned and tortured by what turns out to be a pagan cult.  The film was original conceived and pitched as a typical slasher film with a European road trip slant, but Aster has grander thematic ambitions here to use this idea to psychologically deal with his own issues about a bad relationship he once had and how it deteriorated into break-up.  MIDSOMMAR opens with absolute tragedy with Dani (a dynamite Florence Pugh, previously appearing in this past year's underrated FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY), who has lost her mother, father, and chronically depressed sister in a mass suicide perpetrated by the latter (she piped in the running exhaust pipes of the family car into the closed off family home while the mother and father were sleeping...yikes).  Beyond devastated, Dani tries to take comfort with her boyfriend, Christian (SING STREET's terrific Jack Reynor), who wanted to break up with her before this unspeakable ordeal, but now is guilted into holding it off...for now. 

 

 

Complicating things immensely is Christian's decision to invite what will soon to be his ex-girlfriend on a trip to Sweden that he originally planned with his BFFs in Mark (William Jackson Harper), Josh (Will Poulter), and foreign college student Pelle (Wilhelm Blomgren), the latter hailing from Sweden and who wishes his pals to come to a ceremony in his home nation to celebrate the summer solstice.  Christian reluctantly allows Dani to come uninvited, even though some of his buddies, like the hot-headed and overbearing Josh, thinks that he should have royally dumped her already (what a charming chap).  Regardless, Dani tags along as a fifth wheel, of sorts, on this original boys only trip, taking in all of the bucolic sights and sounds of the village that Pelle takes them to, with the surrounding community (all decked out in ceremonial garb) partaking in a massive ritual celebrating life and death.  Initially, things seem normal and Pelle's promises of hallucinogenic drugs and a hedonistic good time are indeed fulfilled, leading to some truly head spinning trips.  But when all of this builds towards a truly ghastly ritual that turns out to be stomach churning to everyone but those participating in it, Dani and her American clan begin to see solstice for what it really is...and that's just the beginning of the pagan freak show to come. 

To its credit, MIDSOMMAR has a fantastic opening section that's seductively enticing in showing this young woman riddled with punishing grief being whisked away from that personal hell and into an arguably worse hell when she becomes a unwilling pawn in the demonic rituals of what emerges as a murderous cult.  Aster is a smart enough cinematic quarterback, though, to not go to his macabre playbook too early with scares and gore.  Instead, MIDSOMMAR is atypically patient and leisurely in showing these unsuspecting Americans being completely taken in with all of the surrounding picturesque farmland and an inviting festival spirit that feels like they've entered a time warp into the deep past...and all why being blissfully unaware of the tortuous future to come.  At first, the events seem offer up great food, drink, and mood altering substances, but the more time Dani and her friends spend there the more alarmingly off everything seems.  There's an awful lot of disturbing paintings on the buildings' walls detailing perverted pagan ceremonies...and then a grotesque in-bred teen is introduced...and then some alarming looking hand carved ruins are introduced that seem painted with blood...and so on and so on.  And when it becomes clear that the villagers don't take too kindly to their outsider guests...things go south really fast for Dani and company. 

Despite some of the film's more alarming turn of events (it's very appropriately rated R - easily bordering on an NC-17 - for "ritualistic violence, grisly images, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language"), MIDSOMMAR is an endlessly beautiful looking picture, with Aster once again showcasing impeccable production design and bravura cinematography, all fuelling a sense of nerve jangling paranoia and atmosphere that would make most other horror thrillers blush with envy.  The creepiness factor of this film is always on point, leaving viewers feel like they're stuck in this flower powered freak show like the characters.  Like HEREDITARY, MIDSOMMAR is an unqualified technical powerhouse that makes the film that much more terror inducing.  And some of the performances are remarkable as well, especially Pugh, whose character has to go on a deeply unsettling and traumatizing arc throughout the film that requires her to run a hellish emotional gambit.  Akin to what Toni Collette achieved in HEREDITARY (criminally not Oscar nominated), Pugh gives one of the most thanklessly committed performances of the year of total emotional immersion. 

But, hot damn, Aster still manages to fumble the ball here in a few key areas, especially in terms of the characters that surround Dani, most of whom are not afforded much depth or nuance, outside of being hopelessly clueless, shallow, and self-serving Americans that perhaps get what they deserved here.  Reynor's boyfriend is well meaning, but painfully callow, and Poulter's Josh is a one note, skirt chasing loser, and not much else (the male personas here are afforded much development at all).  MIDSOMMAR has an awful lot it wants to say about its themes, even though Aster's scripting leaves much to be savored and desired.  Perhaps there's simply too much thematically going on here, and without much intrinsically compelling focus on any one idea.  Is MIDSOMMAR about religious extremism?  A woman's spiritual awakening?  A woman's revenge porn fantasy?  Or is it just a dreary and hyper violent break-up movie...or one about a vicious cult that methodically kills people with kindness (and sometimes a literal bash to the brain with a heavy mallet)?   It's to MIDSOMMAR's credit that it has much on its mind, but it mournfully doesn't tackle these ideas with any level of depth, mostly because - when it boils right down to it - parade of shock inducing imagery (featuring multiple murders, mercy killings, suicides, and rampant religious madness run fully amok - takes over everything else. 

One last thing:  MIDSOMMAR, as mentioned, has no business being as long as it is, and at nearly two and a half sometimes punishing hours it becomes clear that narrative momentum and overall editorial flow has been jettisoned by what's clearly a lack of willingness on Aster's part to cut this film down to a more manageable and acceptable length.  MIDSOMMAR is chilling AF and works stupendously on its intended levels of existentialist horror, but it's also a pretentiously and self-indulgently long film that has no idea how its length hurts it overall.  To be clear, Aster's skills as a spellbinding horror ringmaster and provocateur are pretty unmatched, especially as a purveyor of tone and mood.  His MIDSOMMAR is a film of alarming, almost hypnotizing power that's hard to shake off after exiting the cinema, and Aster's unbridled ambitiousness is clearly on display.  His creative discipline, though, is sometimes AWOL, leaving films like this and his past work desperately trying to achieve true genre supremacy and greatness, only disappointingly falling short.    

 

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