Ari Aster's first feature-length film, Hereditary, was nominally about grief and suffering and how different people work through it. It showed a disintegrating family wracked by tragedy combined with a supernatural element intent on destroying them. While the exploration of tragedy often worked, and so did the supernatural, it was hampered by the latter since the ending seemed like it was manipulated in a way to make sure it and everything that came before it did not remain ambiguous to the viewer. Although Hereditary is an excellent movie I felt somewhat betrayed, not because of how it ended but because I felt trusted to be able to handle the rest of the story but not trusted to understand the conclusion.
Part of the problem is that the supernatural part of Hereditary was something that was added on later. The family and the various tragedies that befell them were the most important part, and they remained so. Although the stories are in no way related, and Midsommar exists as a horror film without a supernatural undercurrent, it should come as no surprise that some of the same concerns pop up once again. Not only do we have a story of grief and suffering, but also of loneliness and neglect and how the combination of all can result in trying to seek belonging anywhere it can be found.
Dani (Florence Pugh) is dealing with a bipolar sister (Klaudia Csánlyi) who one night commits suicide, taking her parents (Gabi Fon, Zsolt Bojári) with her. She desperately needs the support of her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), but he is on the verge of breaking up with her at the behest of his friends Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper), who thinks she is too needy. The death of her family leads to the relationship continuing beyond its sell-by date, and Christian is hoping to slyly break things off by heading to Sweden to visit the village of their friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Dani finds out about it beforehand and Christian reluctantly brings her along.
Pelle's home town is in an isolated northern part of the country, and the Midsommar celebration itself is a 90-year festival of renewal. At first the villagers seem inviting, but that turns once they open up about their beliefs and encounter resistance from the outsiders. While concerned at first that the others she has come with are vanishing, and that Christian has fallen under the spell of a local girl named Maja (Isabelle Grill), Dani finds herself slowly becoming a part of the community.
Unlike most horror films, this one is filmed in bright daylight save for a few choice scenes little of what happens takes place in darkness. Unlike Hereditary, it doesn't seem like what happens is fate, but often the choice of those involved. Some are killed to preserve knowledge of their customs from outsiders, while others openly transgress against the religious and social laws of the community. The fact that few of the people visiting are even likeable lends a bit of moral ambiguity to the film as it doesn't leave anyone side with.
I can sympathize with the views and the practices of the villagers, but on the other hand understand that putting someone on the first train (or truck) out is probably the better idea. I understand the idea of elders sacrificing, if they choose to, for the what they see as the good of the community, but the sacrifice of others simply due to tradition is beyond me. While Midsommar is often compared to The Wicker Man, the sacrifice made in that movie is largely out of desperation. That sense of desperation is not present here; they largely have everything they could want, and an idyllic sense of belonging and working hard for each other. In tone this is more like The Lottery, and at one point even includes an allusion to Shirley Jackson's short story.
The one thing Midsommar does better than Hereditary is trusting the audience. This time around the ending fits with what came before, and that includes everything leading up to the trip to Sweden. There is no huge explanation at the end to tie it all together; in fact, except for a description of the ritual, there is little dialogue, and most of it plays out in facial expressions and actions. Where it lacks, however, are in the performances.
Florence Hugh is great, channeling grief the same way Toni Collette did in Hereditary, but I feel that Jack Reynor gave an unconvincing, blank-faced performance. He is supposed to be indecisive, self-absorbed and leech-like, and the only way we know this is through being yelled at by Josh concerning his thesis or from typical bad boyfriend types of activity. His big scene, where he finds himself used sexually and not necessarily through his consent, comes off awkward and comical rather than the horror film role reversal Aster and Reynor were going for.
As bad as Reynor is, Will Poulter is worse. It's a relief when they lose him because he's the usual "comic relief" found in a lot of horror films and, just like in a Friday the 13th sequel, the main thought is, "When is this guy going to die already?" He's the one that is sex-obsessed and thinks that he is the life of the party. If Aster meant Mark to be as unfunny and distracting as he is, then maybe Poulter did a good job. I just found him as annoying as a mosquito buzzing in my ear every time he was on screen.
Aster worked once again with Pawel Pogorzelski on the cinematography, and every shot is as beautiful as can be. Even inconsequential shots, like the guys sitting around a table in a pizza restaurant, have a sense of framing and foreshadowing. Like all great movies this is largely visual story telling, with the audience having things explained only when it is relevant to do so. I think he is one of the best young directors out there right now, however I am hoping that he changes things up even more going forward. I could imagine an influx lesser directors trying to imitate the style, and even Aster falling into self-parody if he doesn't expand into different types of subject matter. It might even be a good time to make sure he doesn't get pigeonholed as a horror director.
Midsommar is going to be frustrating and revolting to many viewers, but movies like these are needed to move the horror genre forward.. It has its influences, but Ari Aster still manages to come up with something new so that it doesn't seem like one is sitting through The Wicker Man with some Scandinavian trappings.
Time: 148 minutes
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter
Director: Ari Aster