Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Ambition is a wonderful thing that is far too lacking in the current generation of filmmakers and auteurs entering the scene. Ari Aster turned many heads last year with Hereditary, which I felt to be a criminally misunderstood film. Where many saw a bleak, brutal horror film, I saw a satirical, absurdist comedy, contorting and mixing genres until they were almost unrecognizable. Hereditary was not a horror film, but it was something like a horror film. His latest film Midsommar makes a similar mess of traditional genre tropes and expectations to form a distinctly unholy brand of dreadful break-up comedy. Midsommar does not manage to avoid some of Hereditary’s poor casting decisions but it does bring Aster’s beloved themes of grief, trauma and family into clearer view. Midsommar is a wild ride, not for the faint of heart and those looking to turn their brain off for two hours; this film will expend all your energy and then some, but it will surely be on your mind for days to come.
The film opens by establishing the couple at its core Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), there is clear animosity and distance between them until Dani experiences a massive tragedy. Christian, in an effort to help Dani and save their relationship, invites her on a trip he and his roommates are taking to a rural village in Sweden. To reveal more of the plot here would be to spoil the devious fun that it provides. Aster commits to blatantly suspicious characters in Midsommar, much like the old woman who attends the grief-meetings in Hereditary, the Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) is similarly scene-stealing in his ominous friendliness.
The one downside of the scripting is the bulk of characters Midsommar attempts to juggle, some are far more palpable and believable than others. Two of Christians friends come across as indistinct, their actions had minimal motivation besides leading to their inevitable doom, both Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) suffer from a lack of detail despite the actors giving their all, making the most of their tiny, tangential subplots. The main character Dani is instantly endearing and sympathetic, Pugh delivers a powerfully raw performance that is staggering in the range of emotions she conveys. Her male counterpart, however, was not quite as successful, Christian is a baffling partner for Dani. Reynor understood the part of his character that wanted to leave Dani but never came around to coalescing that with the piece of Christian that is sticking around, riding the relationship out. The audience isn’t given insight into why he stays.
The film really begins, however, once the group reaches the Swedish village. Midsommar boasts fabulously accurate recreations of intoxication by psychedelic drugs, the sound design upon their first arrival to the outskirts of the village had me suspecting they were pumping psilocybin into the theater, the voices were so distinct but the valley around them was empty and vacuous by comparison. Credit goes to the entire post-production crew, the colors pop and burst from the villagers flowing, white garments. The editing and camerawork weave together a disorienting portrait that is simultaneously beautiful and frightening, there are small, hidden clues throughout that are deliberate and thoughtful, strengthening the surrounding mystery. The costume department deserves all of the awards at this winter’s Oscar ceremony, the flower dress during the “May Queen” finale is a stunning garment.
Bobby Krlic of The Haxan Cloak crafted an original soundtrack for Midsommar that is a wonderful listen in and of itself. The “Fire Temple” is a gorgeous, cathartic track that is just as amazing as the finale scene it makes an appearance in. Aster has said that he listened to The Haxan Cloak while he created the Midsommar screenplay and the symbiosis is obvious. The cinematography has improved drastically from Hereditary, where much of that film felt frustratingly stylized, Midsommar‘s camera felt motivated and almost stubborn in its unwillingness to turn away. The inescapable aesthetic may aggravate some, but it felt genuine, reacting to the script material. There was a noticeably more open dialogue in Midsommar between Aster and his cinematographer (Pawel Pogorzelski who also shot Hereditary) which made the atmosphere cohere into a complete whole rather than feeling like it was being operated by two separate people with differing visions.
Midsommar will not please everyone and that is the best possible compliment I can give. This is an uncompromising vision that is equal measures entertaining and challenging. The ending is surprisingly jolly, Midsommar is not a happy film, but it’s occasionally hilarious and almost always engaging. There are still some loose threads, the cast is too large and not every story-beat is justified but this is an improvement upon Hereditary in every department. This is the rare sophomore feature, in the vein of Shoot the Piano Player or Even Dwarfs Started Small, where the director lets their guard down, allowing themselves to satisfy every whim and try out all of the ideas they’ve wanted to for years. It’s a grandiose and pretentious work that either leans too far into maximalism or not far enough, but is nonetheless memorable and utterly unique.