After two films, I think it’s safe to say that I’m not an Ari Aster guy, or an “elevated horror” fan in general. His first film, Hereditary, totally collapsed for me on a second viewing, despite all of the good within it (that Toni Collette performance is really unimpeachable, tbh), and I’ve reacted miserably to the films that have come in its wake, like The Lodge, which, despite coming from filmmakers who helped originate this arthouse trend, feels very much like it’s coasting on Aster’s acclaim. None of this is to say that I think the guy is a fraud. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Aster and his work, but I think his movies, at least in the A24 model, pit his best self — the master craftsman who is capable of merging horrifying visuals with alienating soundscapes to great effect — against his weakest: his writing, which only is able to sustain itself reel-to-reel and whose emotional significance evaporates upon hitting the theater lobby. His latest, Midsommar, is no exception to this rule, in which a solid Euroxploitation concept, a phenomenal young cast and brilliant production designed are undermined by a portentous metaphor, narrative trickery and strained writing. At 140 minutes, it’s one of the summer’s longest disappointments, a full forty minutes longer than both iterations of The Wicker Man, and possessing neither of their charms.
Aside from that particular cultish influence, Aster’s greatest source of inspiration here is… his last produced script. Beat by beat, Midsommar echos Hereditary’s structure almost as if he’d wrote both films with a pre-established A24 Mad Libs book, with only the adjectives left up to him. We begin with an isolated character — Florence Pugh’s Dani, here — who suffers a horrible family tragedy when her bipolar sister snaps and murder-suicides her parents. This puts an enormous strain on Dani and her reluctant, detached boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), who is already being egged on by his pals to break up with her when he gets her screaming phone call. Weeks pass, and seasons shift. By June, Dani is feeling well enough to go out to parties and whatnot, at one where she discovers that, in two weeks, Christian and his two pals — sociology student Josh (William Jackson Harper), and dickhead Mark (Will Poulter) — are planning on accompanying Swedish exchange student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) back to his isolated Nordic community in order to witness a special Midsommar festival that only occurs every 90 years. She makes the split-decision to accompany them on their trip, and the quintet set off on their journey into the wilds. Nobody wants her there. She’s just going to be a downer, after all, with that dead family and whatnot.
Once they arrive, they’re greeted by Pelle’s friends and family, which is to say, they’re introduced to dozens of identically-dressed Swedes who live in an impeccably-realized little village, close to nature, free of the corrupting influences of modern life and technology. Josh immediately falls in love with the environment, and Mark slowly comes to hate it, as he’s made uncomfortable by the entire experiment. Dani’s curious, but withdrawn, and when she’s peer-pressured by the gang to take some mushrooms, she has a bad trip, and it begins to color her experience negatively. Meanwhile, Christian is tempted by the alluring gaze of Pelle’s younger sister, who seems to be making eyes at him, and his relationship with Dani begins to fray even further. Of course, there is some sinister shit going on here, as Pelle’s relatives are all members of a cult, and their rituals involve, well, some human sacrifice and whatnot. She’s been lied to about the experience, as the group has its own plans for her and her little group of friends, and through all of it, she will be required to, I guess, face her trauma and accept or move past it, and confront her fate. There are differently-abled children and naked old women waiting in the wings to creep you out, because those are slowly just becoming a part of his aesthetic, right or wrong. But unlike Hereditary, Midsommar is a break-up movie, not a familial tragedy, and it takes on the tone of a sad-bastard, self-pitying song like Drake’s “Marvins Room” in its final form.
Much of the tension of Aster’s debut is here replaced by droning, church service-esque exposition and/or miserable, cliched conflicts between our Turistas. The former is particularly egregious, as it doesn’t really give the cult any more meaningful color, and adds little to the narrative: bits and pieces are picked up and dropped by Aster whenever he gets tired of paying attention to the minutia. Seriously, this is a film where the most effective exposition comes via tapestry-like drawings of fables and legends strewn around the camp, but we spend so much time on this aspect of the narrative that you’d think he were padding the runtime here. Specificity typically helps this kind of exploitation film, but we’re always kept at arm’s length from the cult, aside from what little information we can glean from these monotone Swedes.
There aren’t any moments where a character, say, tries to get to know another member better (unless they’re getting fucked or killed by said cult member), outside of those aforementioned transactional exchange of academic knowledge. As Vanyaland contributor Brad Avery put it to me recently, you can only get so much milage out of the identically-dressed automatons alone: what makes cults scary are what they do to one’s mind. Aster never wants us to know the cult or their members psychologically because it might undermine their potential to shock further on down the line, and then the unexpected might, you know, become expected. So much of his work lives and dies on the potential for crazy shit to happen, and it’s better to hint at the possibility of crazy shit than to promise something your narrative can’t fulfill. And as such, the Swedes never totally manage to make an impression, scary or otherwise, and their subsequent descent into “evil” feels as if you’d fallen asleep while watching a Disney travelogue and accidentally woken up in the middle of The Wicker Man.
The aforementioned dialogue, on the other hand, is rough enough to make one feel bad for panning the performances of the victims in cheap slasher movies, because, as Aster showcases so handsomely with his wonderful young cast, sometimes that dialogue just can’t be “elevated.” I felt so bad for Poulter, a legitimately brilliant young actor who’s stuck playing the Ugly American, amidst a group full of them, pissing on sacred relics and claiming that a few women, involved in a ceremony in which they walk backwards and pick up flowers, are “walking stupid.” Reynor is caught between gears here, and he’s more useful to Aster as a body than as an actor, especially with his treatment in the finale. Pugh, as well, does her damnest to brings some sort of life to Dani, as well, and there are a few moments where she’s able to sell the oddity and pain of her character’s circumstance.
Let’s take a few seconds here and compare Dani to Sgt. Howie from The Wicker Man (yes, I am going there). Howie has a fascinating conflict with the peoples of Summerisle: his puritanism clashes heavily with the paeanistic rituals and ideas of the island, and his pursuit of the justice puts him on a collision course with their leader and, ultimately, their way of life. Dani doesn’t have much of a conflict: she is there to experience the cult and to be with her friends, and the entire film is eventually set up for her to make a choice that, thanks to Aster’s ending needing it, she doesn’t actually have any choice in making. But this speaks to an overall point about Aster’s characters — and this wasn’t as true in Hereditary as it is here — never feel more than empty cyphers, who came to life only at the start of the movie. They’re merely objects to be fed through his cavalcade of sad (mostly) off-screen fates, inspiring neither dread nor horror nor glee in their passing. That’s also where, if you’re attempting to suggest that his movies are melodramas, they fail as well: it doesn’t stir much emotion in the process, no matter the heightened sensibilities.
It’s a goddamn shame, honestly, because I really admire Aster’s craft. This is a very technically sound film, with much being done visually throughout to throw the audience off-guard, from some minor yet important effects work to the eerie sound design, a perfect complement to the brilliant soundtrack performed by The Haxan Cloak. It’s handsomely lensed by Pawel Pogorzelski, and his gliding camerawork, done in the springtime splendor, goes a long way to making individual scenes compelling on their own, independent of their scripted contents. And, as with Hereditary, Aster’s production designers deserve much of the credit for the film’s successes. They’ve created this incredible little village, one that they’ve endowed with a sense of community and plausibility, for our characters to inhabit, and the results are often strikingly beautiful. There are aspects of this film’s style that would make a filmmaker like Wes Anderson envious, thinking that a young buck like Aster might be approaching and appropriating his style to better ends than he could in the genre, which the sweeping wide shots of cultists, arranged in patterns amongst the village’s wooded terrain, feel evocative of.
But it’s all in service of a garbled narrative, stuck between the director’s differing impulses, with the impressive visuals unable to make Midsommar’s mundanities palatable. I honestly am happy for Aster to potentially leave the horror genre, as he’s stated that he’s interested in doing so, not because I wish him ill will, but because I think his talents really might be suited for another kind of film (and I will eagerly be there day one for what he does next, no matter the genre). Midsommar again makes the case for Aster as a brilliant craftsman, with skill nearly unparalleled in his field, held at arm’s length from meaning by his hollowness as a storyteller and maker of meaningful art.