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
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.
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
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.