(2019—Director: Ari Aster)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(with strong moral reservations)
(out of 5 stars)
Potential spoilers below
When writer-director Ari Aster made his feature debut last June with Hereditary, a strong majority of critics and audiences were both impressed and shook. Cinephiles ignited a campaign to get Toni Collette nominated for the Best Actress Oscar. When that didn’t come to pass, the campaign soon translated into a still-lingering resentment. I’ll admit I didn’t care much for this push, instead hoping that Michelle Pfeiffer’s spellbinding performance in 2018 gem-of-gems Where Is Kyra? would receive recognition instead (see mentions here). On top of that, I just wasn’t that impressed with Hereditary and its latter plot elements a bit too reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby. Yet while the performances and overall execution edged towards the hoaky, Hereditary did feature stellar cinematography, editing, and other technical crafts. It’s a positive development, then, that Aster’s sophomore feature Midsommar leans hard on those strengths to draw more focus on character motivations and away from the undeniably mature folk horror that proceeds as most expect.
By returning to collaborate with writer-director Aster, d.p. Pawel Pogorzelski and editor Lucian Johnston become Midsommar’s standout craftsmen. Sure, Hereditary snuck in a few medium and long takes as well as sharp cuts typical of horror. Midsommar takes these to a whole new level. Takes not only get longer, but there’s confidence between the character blocking and framing, while several match cuts push the story along brilliantly. The midnight sun of Midsommar’s Swedish setting grants Aster & Co. a greater amount of light with which to realize the screenplay’s bright and twisted cult horror. Rarely does the film feel long, its daring and discerning viewers soon basking in its horrific glow.
Whereas Hereditary took after Rosemary’s Baby, Midsommar takes after folk horror centering on cults like The Wicker Man. However, instead of leading in via a crime or murder mystery/thriller angle, Midsommar lures its characters in by way of relationship troubles in addition to psychological trauma. Doing so enables Aster to avoid the typical clueless protagonists of most horror. For example, after the highly-graphic ättestupa ritual—the plot’s first real sign of the doom that awaits our heroes—Aster makes use of the status of Christian (Jack Reynor) and Josh (William Jackson Harper) as fellow graduate students. The recent horrific experience actually invigorates Josh’s thesis writing on European midsummer rituals. Yet it also produces tension when that same horrific experience causes Christian to make a bold confession to Josh: He wants to copy his thesis idea, though focusing strictly on the community of their classmate Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who invited his classmates there in the first place. This academic dilemma adds a damaging competitive wedge between Christian and Josh while also forcing them to stay together at the commune.
Furthermore, this revelation of Christian’s motivations widens the emotional gap between him and girlfriend Dani (Florence Pugh), the audience’s eyes in this story. (Ms. Pugh recently shined as WWE wrestler Paige in Fighting With My Family and has her role as Amy March in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women ahead of her.) To Dani, this trip to Sweden wasn’t Christian’s effort to comfort her following her family tragedy, especially since her birthday coincided with the midsummer festival. No, this was actually for her emotionally-distant boyfriend to put a dishonest end to his lackluster phase in graduate school. This awareness helps Dani realize how truly alone she is and how this bizarre Swedish community might prove a suitable alternative to Christian. Ms. Pugh gets to express a wide range of emotions, from hysteria to despondence to curiosity and wonder; Reynor, on the other hand, tends toward detached chill. This character contrast demonstrates a clearly incompatible relationship with burning intrigue.
The complexity of this disintegrating relationship should serve as the first hint that Midsommar is for mature viewers only. This gets firmly justified by several scenes. One involves the aforementioned ättestupa ritual, which lingers on the realistic aftermaths of senicide by fall while cutting from the coup de grâce via mallet. Another scene involves extended sexual activity of a most bizarre and extremely pagan nature. All these, right up to the movie’s finale, don’t just show the serious risks of accepting an invitation to an isolated commune in a foreign land. They also demonstrate how a primarily pantheistic outlook reduces rational human beings to just another cog in the recycling of mother nature. Human reason, will, and nuanced emotions naturally resist at the idea of being only meat, merely passing through for 72 years.
In addition, Midsommar’s major plot points enhance the forlorn Dani’s desire for a loving community’s warmth and comfort, particularly when contrasted with her reluctant boyfriend. The statement from the end of Hereditary, “We reject the Trinity,” echoes in my mind the more I reflect on Christian’s character. Is his name accidental? Is his lack of regard for the central lady reflective of the perception that the Christian-influenced Western society of modern times doesn’t serve women like she should? Furthermore, is Christian’s lazy, borderline plagiarism of Josh’s thesis idea meant to critique how the Christian religion seemingly appropriates and modifies customs and rituals from the pagan cultures that preexisted her? (One prominent example involves how mentally- and/or physically-handicapped citizens, typically the product of inbreeding, are tasked with composing the commune’s sacred runic texts, which the elders then “interpret”.) It takes a bigger-than-average resentment of Christianity to include the line “We reject the Trinity” in their debut feature, so there could very well exist in writer-director Ari Aster some sort of anti-Christian angle that might unfortunately continue to seep into his work.
A few months ago, Us took the strengths of Jordan Peele’s previous work Get Out to new heights. Likewise, Midsommar has taken the strengths of Ari Aster’s previous effort Hereditary a bit higher while also minimizing its shortcomings. Mature and discerning viewers might consider keeping an eye on Aster’s career, especially as he peels away from deconstructing tried-and-true horror concepts and approaches crafting cinematic narratives that are well and truly his own.
Parental Note: Midsommar has been rated..
• R by the MPAA “for disturbing ritualistic violence and grisly images, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use, and language”; (NOTE: Around 30 min. of content, much of which will be restored in a future Director’s Cut for home entertainment, was cut to prevent an NC-17 rating.)
• 18 by the BBFC for “strong gory images”; and
• -4 (“Abhorrent”) by Movieguide for being “heavy” on violence, language, sex, and nudity.
Extended Premise: Anxiety-ridden college student Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) is struggling to balance keeping contact with her bipolar sister and keeping close to Christian Hughes (Jack Reynor), her emotionally-distant boyfriend who plans on breaking up with her. When Dani receives the traumatizing news one winter night that her sister committed murder-suicide with their sleeping parents, Christian is forced to stick by her side. Months later, classmate Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) invites Christian and fellow classmates Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) to a midsummer celebration that takes place every 90 years at Pelle’s ancestral commune, the Hårga, in Sweden’s Hälsingland. Dani rebukes Christian for not telling her; to make up for it, Christian brings her along on the trip. Little do they know, at this idyllic and inviting rural setting, that a sinister agenda awaits them.
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.