Welp, so much for my summer trip to Sweden. I had so eagerly been anticipating a month-long romp in a sun-dappled meadow and tripping on psilocybin proffered by a clan of white-robed death-cultists – until my recent viewing of Midsommar, that is. This film effectively cured me of all inclinations to ever visit rural Sweden… because it showed me that the countryside is populated by flowers, and this critic is severely allergic to pollen. Ah, well! I’ll just have to enjoy some psychedelics with my local death-cult over at the community hall instead…
Midsommar is the new film by writer/director Ari Aster, who rose to prominence as a virtuoso of horror with 2018’s supernatural tongue-clicker Hereditary. His sophomore venture, a far folksier piece replete with a looming maypole and blood-smeared runes and ritualistic chanting, has already been equated to 1973’s The Wicker Man – at least, by those who actually know it exists. Like most non-tentpole films in this seasonal CGI-saturated cinematic cesspool, Midsommar is receiving very little mainstream attention and has barely surpassed its relatively meager budget. In fact, the reason this critique is clocking in so far past our own midsummer is because my hometown’s Theatrical Symposium for Degenerate Fancies is still screening Avengers: The Neverending Game, so I had to wait for an opportunity to see it in the city. Incidentally, my pilgrimage to view Midsommar eerily reflected its characters’ journey to the Hälsingland commune, in that it proved so grotesque that some fled in disgust midway through, never to be seen again.
Be forewarned – spoilers abound in plenteousness…
Anyway, the plot – up-and-coming actress Florence Pugh stars as a comely young college student named Dani, who is reeling from the recent murder-suicide of her parents and emotionally-unstable sister. Her emotionally-unavailable boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), is equally distraught by this tragedy, as he had been desperate for a pretense to break up with her and now feels obligated to prolong their relationship. Really, he’s like a younger, handsomer, dopier George Costanza. Out of pity, he invites her to sojourn with him and his college buddies to a quaint Swedish commune, where they will celebrate a local midsummer festival and most definitely not be forcibly administered narcotics, coerced into sexual liaisons, or gruesomely filleted as a sacrifice for the harvest, or something.
To be clear, I wholeheartedly enjoyed this film, grueling as it sometimes was. It’s perhaps the most artful horror I’ve seen since Under the Skin, being both beautiful to behold and an endurance test to experience, like gazing over a gleaming sunrise while angry bees carve phallic symbols into your teeth. This admittedly makes it challenging to endorse, for while I’d love everyone to look upon this film with admiration, I know its disturbing content will turn many away in revulsion. One particularly graphic sequence at the midpoint triggered a minor exodus from my theater, and the climactic sex scene in the finale (which understandably traumatized Reynor) generated a wave of aghast protests from those who remained. Its shock value aside, I was entirely entranced by the quality and precision of Aster’s direction. The cinematography is crisp and stimulating and paints an inviting portrait of the Swedish countryside, with a singularly memorable shot somersaulting smoothly around our characters’ vehicle in transit, like that shot of Loki’s scepter in the first Avengers movie, only not stupid. The sound mixing and audio design are rapturous, carrying much of the film’s tension and guiding the viewer effortlessly from scene to scene, moment to moment, without ever feeling overpowering. Everything about this film from a visual and audio standpoint is superb, which is something even its detractors are conceding to. Yes, this film has its fair share of detractors, most of whom aren’t so much disquieted over its content as they are dismayed that it’s not Hereditary.
I suppose it’s difficult to evaluate Midsommar without mentioning Hereditary, in the same way that any discussion of Jordan Peele’s second horror Us will invariably loop back to his debut film Get Out. While Hereditary cemented Ari Aster’s status as an in-demand auteur and made A24 a cool $80 million against a $10 million budget, Midsommar’s reception has been more subdued, especially amongst those who loved Aster’s first venture. “It’s good,” many of his loyal fans say halfheartedly into their webcams. “Just not as good as Hereditary.” Indeed, in terms of style and execution, the two films couldn’t be further removed from one another. While Hereditary utilized a wide range of lighting techniques and shadows to shape the mood, Midsommar settles for a palette consisting largely of saturated greens and yellows. Where Hereditary implemented extensive camera trickery to prompt the viewer to actively question everything they were seeing, Midsommar maintains a sense of visual honesty, resorting only to a distortion filter to simulate its hallucinogenic elements. While Hereditary employed the grim family manor to infuse a sense of dread and claustrophobia, Midsommar lets its characters play outside in broad daylight, which is somehow more unsettling. Whereas Hereditary led awestruck viewers to enthusiastically muse, “What do you suppose that meant?”, Midsommer seems to be leaving that same batch of viewers to question, bewildered, “What do you suppose that meant?”
The common complaint being lodged against this film is that it supposedly fails to offer anything more in the way of plot than what’s immediately apparent – i.e., a group of college chums are lured to a pagan commune, witness some fairly horrifying atrocities, and get picked off one by one until the credits roll. Admittedly, there is little that transpires that’s beyond the realm of expectation, and all of Hereditary’s complex lore and intricate (some might say convoluted) plotting is eschewed in favour of a straightforward approach. I can certainly identify with those who were perhaps craving something loftier from Aster, because this is, after all, 2019 – we know from the onset that shocking events are inevitable on this doomed Eurotrip, and so we wait patiently for them to unfold. And we wait. And we wait. And we wait. Tension mounts like violin strings slowly increasing in frequency until the eventual climax that doesn’t so much release the brimming tension as it lets it trickle imperceptibly into the credits. The final product is a story that might feel like the cinematic equivalent of blue balls, if one entered the theater anticipating spectacle over substance.
The issue with Midsommer’s naysayers is that they were perhaps so eager to unravel a Byzantine mythology that they overlooked the highly-effective character story that was right under their noses, having been conditioned to do so by Hereditary. Now, I’ll admit that I did not love Hereditary. I certainly admired it for going against the grain and I found Aster’s direction impressive, but it had me scratching my head far too often to garner anything higher than a Good 7 on the ol’ ratings grid. Midsommer, on the other hand, kept things simple, and in doing so appealed to my zeal for character drama. This isn’t about elaborate plotting or spiritual lore or arcane symbolism or even the obligatory kill count – it’s about Dani overcoming tragedy, finding a place to belong, and dumping her dork boyfriend. This is indicative of Aster’s overall style – that is, weaving interpersonal journeys through tried-and-true horror scenarios. At their core, his films are intimate domestic dramas about broken people undergoing emotional upheaval; all the horror elements are merely the aesthetic trappings that go with the genre. Just as Hereditary was a tale of emotional abuse and genealogical curses disguised as a supernatural horror, so Midsommar is a breakup film disguised as The Wicker Man, though thematically it has more in common with, say, Shaun of the Dead.
See, in Edgar Wright’s 2004 ZomCom, the legions of undead are merely the backdrop for the actual story, which involves Simon Pegg’s Shaun growing up, putting away childish things, and becoming a man. In the same manner, Midsommer’s gruesome kills and merry cultists and folksy locale are just the setting in which Dani breaks free of a toxic relationship and comes into her own. In the opening scenes, we are ostensibly meant to identify with both her and Christian – her for the tragedy that has befallen her, and him for simply desiring to break free of an undesirable relationship. As the film progresses, however, our sympathies shift entirely into her camp – what we might have initially construed as emotional neediness on Dani’s part, we gradually come to identify as genuineness and loyalty, while any empathy we bore for Christian is eventually stripped away as we come to understand how completely ambivalent and self-absorbed he is.
In all, I enjoyed Midsommer for its simple, straightforward character story and the satisfying payoff Aster granted to its heroine, Dani, who might be the most sympathetic horror protagonist since Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween. It’s an emotionally-taxing but ultimately rewarding art piece that deserves better than halfhearted recommendations and total obscurity.