Oh. Hello, A24. It’s you again. You’re back. I should have changed that stupid lock. I should have made you give your key, if I’d have known for just one second you’d make a spiritual sequel to Hereditary. Just turn around now. You’re not welcome anymore. Weren’t you the one who tried to scare me with It Comes At Night?
Midsommar, the second feature from Hereditary’s writer/director Ari Aster, opens with a couple on the verge of a break-up. Dani (Florence Pugh) is an emotionally fragile mess, while Christian (Jack Reynor) is surrounded by toxically masculine bro-buddies. After a massive family trauma happens to Dani, Christian’s friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) invites the…happy couple to his rural home village in the north of Sweden for a midsummer festival that only occurs once every 90 years. And if you’ve ever seen a horror film of any kind before, you can guess that things start going to hell pretty quickly after that. Oh, those wacky Swedes with their pagan death cults!
And if you’ve ever seen a horror film of any kind before, you won’t be surprised by a single thing that happens. Not that much happens in the first place. This is a 147-minute horror/drama that has 20 minutes of narrative at most and about 8 minutes of actual horror (and even then, it’s more disgusting than it is frightening). I’m no mathematician, but neither of those seem like a great ratio.
The promise and potential that Aster showed with Hereditary, which was a decent film that fell apart in its final act, has given way to self-indulgence and pretension. He seems to contemplate every scene even as it unfolds before us. Midsommar could be a great deal tighter if Aster would have simply stopped marveling at his own compositions long enough to advance the plot. Even the final fade to black before the credits seems to go on for far too long. At least half the film is just the camera staring off into space.
Although it should be said that a lot of that space does look nice. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski has a keen eye for the wilderness surrounding the commune, and there are a number of great uses of color-blocking and framing. A building on the commune is painted a bright yellow that makes it seem alien in the white-and-earth-tone palette surrounding it. In fact, the cinematography is one of the film’s best aspects, along with the Haxan Cloak’s eerie, minimalist score. No matter his skill as a director, Aster has a fine knack for picking composers.
But while the film’s technical aspects tend to be solid, it’s the story and narrative itself that helps brings the film down. Aster clearly has a great deal he wants to say and a lot of themes he wants to explore. If he could just stick with one and follow it through all the way to the end, that would be great. Is the film about the madness of religion? Feminist revenge on an uncaring patriarchy? The inescapable power of grief? The disconnect between modern and ancient cultures? Maybe. Maybe not. Aster tries to take a number of paths to his ultimate truth, but on each one he seems to be missing at least one crucial step, and not even the same step each time. It’s like he’s skipping between roads at random.
He’s not helped by most of the cast, either. Whereas the characters in Hereditary seemed more like fully-fleshed, lived-in people, the dramatis personae here barely have two sentences each to their backstory. In a way, that’s a little refreshing. After all, this being a horror film, we know that most of them are cannon fodder anyway. But given the amount of time we spend with them before that happens, it gets supremely frustrating that they all seem like such bare canvases. And some of them, like Will Poulter’s ugly American tourist horndog Mark, we spend far, FAR too much time with. If anything, the cast seems less like people and more like devices with dialogue. Even Dani’s family only exists so that their tragedy can give her a breakdown and force her into the plot.
Only Florence Pugh and Vilhelm Blomgren come close to making their characters seem real. Pugh often comes off as a discount Jennifer Lawrence — there are strong parallels to mother! here — but even a second-hand J. Law is right at least twice a film. It’s a shame, though, that Dani doesn’t seem to grow or evolve as a character over the course of the film, constantly falling victim to tragedy and giving in to madness. Blomgren for his part has a very easygoing charisma and natural charm to his role, almost to an uncanny degree. By the end of the film, it’s almost impossible to separate the actor from his character.
What really, truly undoes the film though is its stoicism and utter lack of self-awareness. There’s a distinct exploitation film vibe running through the film that’s never explored or even acknowledged. The premise sounds like an American/Swedish co-production knock-off of The Wicker Man that was made in 1974 but sat on the shelf for a few years before being released to grindhouse theatres. And if Aster had just flirted with that aspect even a little bit, the film would have been that much more interesting to watch. But it’s like someone took that idea and played it completely straight. Camp turns into narm, and the dark humor becomes so dry that it becomes nothing but dust in the wind. The brutally-detailed, fetishistic gore scenes — which Aster loves to linger on — and the random bits of Scandinavian pagan apocrypha littering the landscape both speak to a kind of lovingly outrageous brand of cinema that’s been drained of all life through a hipster, we’re-better-than-that arthouse filter.
That’s really the rub there. This is yet another horror film trying to pretend it’s something above its own genre (something A24 seems to specialize in). Aster himself has described Midsommar as “a break-up film in horror film clothes.” Next time, I suggest he make one or the other until he can get his thesis on straight. There’s no more inherent shame in genre cinema than there is anything else, and until the producers at A24 realize that, I’ll be saving all my fear for a horror film that frightens me.
FBOTU Score: 4 ouf 10 / C-