REVIEW: Midsommar (2019)

Theatrical Release Poster – A24

The following is a review of Midsommar — Directed by Ari Aster.

As a Scandinavian, any film that revolves around Scandinavia or a specific part of Scandinavian culture, naturally, intrigues me greatly. So Midsommar already had my curiosity, but Ari Aster’s involvement pulled me in and seized my attention, as it were. Ari Aster is one of the most interesting new filmmakers. He is a gifted director whose first narrative feature — Hereditary — was one of the best and most disturbing horror films of the decade. With one of the decade’s best films in the genre under his belt already, his second feature film had a lot to live up to, and even though Midsommar isn’t quite as accessible as his directorial debut, Aster’s slow-burn second feature film showcases his distinct visual style, has thematical depth, and it proves that he is one of the most exciting new auteurs.

Opening with a Scandinavian medieval mural, tapestry, or curtain — not entirely unlike the Skog tapestry, which, by the way, was apparently discovered in Hälsingland where Aster’s work of fiction takes place — that depicts the progression of the narrative, Ari Aster’s Midsommar follows Dani (played by Florence Pugh) and her boyfriend Christian (played by Jack Reynor), who had considered breaking up with Dani until something severely traumatic happened to her.

For quite some time, Christian and his friends had been planning to go to Sweden to experience and study the Swedish commune that their new acquaintance Pelle (played by Vilhelm Blomgren) was raised in. This Swedish community has pagan beliefs and is getting ready to celebrate the summer solstice — i.e. the midsummer. This is uniquely relevant to Josh (played by William Jackson Harper), Christian’s classmate, who is writing a thesis on summer solstice rituals, while Christian is merely looking for inspiration for his own dissertation, and, their mutual friend, Mark (played by Will Poulter) seems to just be tagging along for a good summer trip to Northern Europe.

To appease his girlfriend (and with the hope that she would have declined), Christian invited Dani with them to Sweden, much to the frustration of Mark. Together, Christian, Dani, Josh, and Mark are guided by Pelle to Hårga, the aforementioned pagan commune. Once they are there, they are met with bright, sunny nights, psychedelic drugs, and friendly, blonde Swedes that lead them through a sunny, extravagant gate. But, in spite of the appearances that suggest otherwise, everything isn’t all sunshine and rainbows in Hårga, and soon the American guests are met with a commune culture that doesn’t agree with them, as well as these unspeakable rituals that frighten and upset the foreign guests.

If Hereditary was Ari Aster’s take on Rosemary’s Baby, then Midsommar is his take on The Wicker Man. By relying on that iconic folk horror film — the obvious inspiration — Midsommar becomes a somewhat predictable film, which, I would say is the one undeniable and objective problem with Aster’s work, for which I have a great admiration. Sophomore efforts will always, naturally, be compared to the directorial debut, and while it is true that Hereditary and Midsommar are direct opposites in many ways (one should by no means expect a film exactly like Hereditary, as Midsommar is nowhere near as accessible as Aster’s debut and is absolutely not a conventional mainstream horror film) I was struck by the thematic similarities. In actuality, I think that the narrative of Midsommar resembles Hereditary quite a bit — certainly, more than I expected it to — even though, to reiterate, the setting, lighting, and culture on display could not be more different.

Furthermore, Hereditary revolved around themes such as mental illness and grief. Aster’s Midsommar is thematically rooted in grief, as well, but it uses it as a thematic springboard, so to speak, to tackle toxic relationships. It would absolutely not be wrong to say that this is a twisted and trippy but cathartic break-up film. It is also a bizarrely funny daytime horror film. For most of the film, Aster makes use of these bright, colorful and idyllic, utopia-like wide shots that, along with the psychedelic substances that allow for these hallucinatory sequences, make the deliberately paced Midsommar seem like an absurd, dreamlike fairy tale with horror and dark humor elements.

Aster is a precise filmmaker and his vision comes through quite clearly. Working with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, Aster feeds you these wide shots with details — mostly in the form of foreshadowing runes or murals — hiding in the corner of the frame. Much like with Hereditary, you feel that an auteur is at work thanks to the confidence of each slow-moving wide shot. With Hereditary, Aster used miniature creations to hone in on the maddening loss of distinction between reality and imagination. With Midsommar, Aster achieves a lot through the ambiance of Hårga, and he, once again, toys with the difficulties with distinguishing reality from hallucination thanks to his visual flair — I was wowed, at least once or twice, by the film’s transitions — and the utopic townscape. Aided also by phenomenal work by crewmembers like production designer Henrik Svensson and costume designer Andrea Flesch, Aster achieves a warm but disorienting and, at times, disturbing mood.

If this all sounds too pretentious or too slow for your tastes, but you still want to watch a horror film set in Scandinavia with a similar premise, then I would recommend David Bruckner’s The Ritual, which, like Midsommar, will warn you against going to Sweden. As a Scandinavian, I really get a kick out of these types of films, and I’m sure Swedes do as well. But I digress. While Midsommar isn’t a conventionally scary horror film — opting instead for a tonal balancing act that elicits uncomfortable laughs — the film does include these gory sequences that rely on incredibly convincing practical effects.

The performances are uniformly strong. Will Poulter is starting to build himself a fascinating career, and he will be proud of Midsommar. Poulter plays a bad-mannered and entitled young man who misses out on the action, and who is oblivious to lines that must not be crossed. Poulter plays his character’s cluelessness and disrespect of a foreign culture really well. Even though I’m used to watching William Jackson Harper on one of television’s best comedy series, I thought he did a very good job in a genre film that would normally ask very different things of you. However, it isn’t exactly tough for this particular The Good Place-star to play an academic character who is fascinated by foreign customs.

Jack Reynor, who has altered his career by opting out of his blockbuster-focused track-to-stardom to appear in independent cult hits like Sing Street, is so good in the role as the toxic, inept, and unoriginal boyfriend that you may fool yourself into siding with him. His role will undoubtedly be relatable to some, and Reynor does a brilliant job of imbuing his character with a lot of agreeable qualities. Like with Hereditary, however, Midsommar features a standout performance from a female starring actor. Severely grief and anxiety-stricken, Pugh’s character is in need of comfort so that she can put down roots and let go of her sorrow and anguish, and when the character is given that opportunity for a proper release it is undeniably felt. Florence Pugh is extraordinary throughout the film.

Other than my problem with the film’s predictability, which, to be fair, is almost by design, I think Midsommar could’ve been a little bit more ambitious in the relationships and conflicts that do not include Pugh’s character. I think the film should’ve dedicated more time to subjects like race and white male privilege, and there is a powerful and infuriating conflict between Josh and Christian that I don’t think fulfills its potential, but Aster does successfully add in a lot of American entitlement into the film. Also, though I appreciate the tonal blend — or tightrope act — I do think there is one sequence in the final act, wherein Aster juxtaposes two distinctly different ceremonies that both include moaning commune members, that elicit the wrong kind of emotions. I don’t think this sequence should elicit full-hearted laughs, seeing as one character is severely drugged, but the sequence did make audience-members burst out laughing in the theater that I was in.

When I saw Hereditary in the theater, the frightening slow-burn inspired walk-outs, and while this film didn’t lead to anyone exiting the theater prematurely when I saw it, I fully expect to hear about theaters having to reimburse audience-members. Midsommar is ambitious and challenging, and the slow-burn will wear some audience-members out, but I was thoroughly entertained. In my review of Hereditary, I wrote about the phenomenon where film writers proclaim that a critically acclaimed horror film isn’t really a horror film. To me, Hereditary always felt like a horror film, but I think Midsommar certainly tests the limits of the genre.

With his sophomore feature film, Ari Aster has portrayed the horror in beauty and daylight perfectly. Aster’s Midsommar is a bizarre and surprisingly funny daytime folk horror film about grief and relationship drama complete with ‘shrooms, brightly colored flowers that breathe and sway, and a brilliant leading performance. Or perhaps, if I may be so daring, it is a cathartic break-up movie sailing under false colors to appear as a conventional horror film — a jack-in-the-box with a thorned cherry blossom on a spring.

9 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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