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Review: Ari Aster's Ritual of Horror in "Midsommar"

The director's follow-up to "Hereditary" is another highly stylized, self-conscious horror film, set in an ominously bright Swedish commune.
Lawrence Garcia
Ari Aster’s sophomore feature Midsommar isn’t a horror movie in the typical sense—or, at least, that’s what the marketing campaign of its U.S. distributor A24 (to say nothing of the critical discourse surrounding the film) would have you believe. Made directly following the success of his acclaimed debut Hereditary (2018), the film reportedly started out as a slasher movie, and although it's now something quite different, it retains the general framework of one. The deaths of its principal characters are less a matter of if, but when, and are presented with enough gruesome variation to satisfy even the most avid gore-hounds. But as Midsommar unfolds predominantly under Sweden’s “midnight sun,” the film has the supposed distinction of being the brightest horror film ever made, with more than a few scenes blindingly, intentionally overexposed in a transparent bid for that superlative. It is also, we are meant to gather, a relationship drama at its core, focused mainly on the travails of a young American couple, Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), whose fated European trip serves as a kind of crucible. As Aster himself has phrased it more than once, Midsommar is a break-up movie in folk-horror drag.
That pithy summation—an elevator pitch useful to filmmakers, distributors, and critics alike—is unmistakably in the parlance of marketing, which is all too understandable. Given the impossibly crowded and increasingly risk-averse landscapes of contemporary film production, it’s hard to begrudge a filmmaker for proffering such spins. And it’s not as if this particular assessment is inaccurate. It’s all but impossible to watch Midsommar without recalling Robin Hardy’s British horror-classic The Wicker Man (1973), with which the film shares an absurdly high baseline for cultish behavior, as well as a, let’s say, off-kilter sense of humor. Most of the film unfolds in a remote Swedish commune called Hårga (actually shot in Budapest), which Dani and Christian travel to with a trio of friends: Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who hails from the village, and thus serves as the group’s guide; Josh (William Jackson Harper), an anthropology student whose thesis subject is ancient Scandinavian culture; and horny comic-relief sidekick Mark (Will Poulter). Like the traditions of Summerisle in Hardy’s film, the ancient rites and rituals of the far-flung village will define the texture and tenor of Midsommar, and will only escalate in disturbing intensity as Dani and Christian’s relationship, already strained at the outset, gradually unravels.
In Aster’s case, though, there’s cause for skepticism, since the writer-director has shown himself a touch too eager to identify cinematic waypoints for his various films. He's previously described The Strange Thing About the Johnsons (2011), his 30-minute short about a man’s incestuous abuse of his father, as “[his] Sirkian film”—though the movie, made when the director was a graduate student at AFI, seems predicated on a deliberate misunderstanding of Sirk. In Hereditary, which made waves upon its Sundance premiere, the director more convincingly affirmed a kinship with Bergman, his professed primary influence. With Midsommar, the American director has now cited the work of Lars von Trier, specifically Dogville (2003)—and in addition, he’s offered no less than ten other reference points, ranging from Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance (1973) to Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (1968). 
Aster, of course, retains an absolute right to his creative inspirations. And it’s only natural for a young, ambitious writer-director—particularly a hardcore cinephile weaned on horror in his early teen years—to be working through his influences at this stage in his career. It seems fair, though, to point out that Midsommar, though it does share von Trier’s misanthropic predilections and tendency to construct cinematic Catherine wheels for characters and audiences alike, bears little similarity to the conceptual-cathartic bloodletting of Dogville, whose distancing devices have no stylistic analog here. A more useful point of comparison might be the grief-laden hysteria of Antichrist (2009), whose retreat to a kind of perverse Eden ruled by the chaos of nature mirrors the overall trajectory of Aster’s film. Indeed, Midsommar’s pre-credits prologue could be likened to the black-and-white overture of von Trier’s notoriously provocative dyad, conveying a toll of death that looms over the remainder of the runtime. (That said, Midsommar more often brought to mind another Nordic director: Norway’s Joachim Trier, whose turn into genre territory with Thelma observed a young woman’s Carrie-esque awakening amidst a nexus of family trauma and religious repression.)
When first introduced, Dani is fretting over a cryptic, but troubling message from her sister, though as her boyfriend Christian assures her—not for the first time—it’s likely just another emotionally desperate bid for attention. All this we learn through a phone call between the two, conveyed in a sustained close-up of Pugh, who runs through the gamut of emotions of someone plagued with the terror that this time might be different. And so it is, for we are soon witness to the aftermath of a murder-suicide: three bodies glimpsed in a series of floating movements through a suburban home. If Aster’s previous films explored the particular pull of blood ties, then Midsommar, in depriving Dani of her entire immediate family, probes the absence of the very same—and thus the unique draw of the Swedish village, with its surface paeans to complete cult unity.
Because of Midsommar’s signposted antecedents, along with the Swedish villagers' near-pathological cheer, there’s no question that horrific fates await Dani, her companions, as well as another twenty-something young couple, who were invited to the Swedish camp by a "brother" of Pelle's. And even if the film's genre scaffolding were not enough, there's no misinterpreting Aster’s self-consciously ominous staging: A conversation in Christian’s apartment transitions into an overhead view of Dani having a panic attack in an airplane lavatory; in another shot, which observes the group driving towards the Hårga camp, the camera inverts, trading solid ground for open sky. Such moves are the director’s way of conveying unease, the sense that things are already more than slightly askew—and will only get worse.
Partisans will likely disagree that Aster’s directorial touch is strained, but that it is heavy seems indisputable. Nothing in Midsommar occurs without a sense of portent—which isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker, since even The Shining (1980), say, is formally elegant, but not exactly light on underlined menace. The film’s elaborate sets are the work of production designer Henrik Svensson, but as with the Grahams’ family home in Hereditary, Aster treats this territory mainly as a proving ground for his stylistic prodigiousness. Re-teaming with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, the director has once again strung together a series of deliberate camera movements—all glacial pans, meaningful push-ins, and foreboding lateral glides. For the score, Bobby Krlic (recording under the moniker the Haxan Cloak) replaces Hereditary’s composer Colin Stetson, though the music's insistent function in establishing a baseline of eerie ambiance remains.
All this amounts to a film that prizes an atmosphere of dread above all else—including a finer articulation of the relationship-drama that is its supposed core. When Hereditary first made its rounds, Aster was quick to say that he was not a horror director. Motivated by a desire not to be pigeonholed, the statement also served to emphasize the story’s domestic psychological-breakdown over its Rosemary’s Baby-esque murmurings of occult conspiracy—which the film was able to bear out, albeit more shakily than its most fervent champions would contend. That the material Aster culled from his initial, three-hour cut of Hereditary was all “family drama stuff" seemed, at the time, like an unfortunate, but understandable attempt to ensure his debut feature’s marketability. But in capitalizing on Hereditary’s success, Aster has created something far more hollow about its supposedly human concerns—a film of calculated gesture that fits more cynically into the recent spate of what has, rightly or wrongly, been corralled under the term “elevated horror.”
By his own admission, Aster spent considerable amounts of time researching Scandinavian and Germanic traditions. But in recreating the rituals of the cloistered commune that Dani finds herself in, he often sacrifices genuine engagement for a kind of dry, deadpan humor. Occasionally amusing, though too often inert, this approach severely limits Midsommar’s capacity to discomfit. (A reasonably representative exchange that works about as well out of context: “I think I ate one of her pubic hairs.” “That’s probably right.”) Aster’s governing point-of-view is—like that of Christian and Josh, who eventually compete to write their respective theses on the Hårga traditions—essentially anthropological, and so everything that happens is presented at an absurdist, fundamentally unthreatening remove. The baseline of realism and psychologically consistent behavior that Aster establishes early on, while sketching Dani and Christian’s strained dynamic of dependency and guilt, is quickly dispensed with following the title card—which, again, is entirely his prerogative. But as the director continues to ratchet up his film’s too-studied derangement, its original conception as a break-up movie grows increasingly vague and incoherent and thus unable to draw any real blood. It is clear enough that there will be some sort of final rupture—but the question isn’t why, but only how
The overwhelming sense of inevitability in Hereditary was consistent with its preoccupations with fate and free will—right down to the script's gonzo apocalyptic kicker. With Midsommar, Aster has once again designed his story with a conceptually potent final sting. But while he's kept the clockwork machinations of his debut—so his characters once again feel like “pawns in a hopeless machine”—he’s also hinged this follow-up on a crucial choice, one that its internal psychological framework is, in the end, too flimsy to support. In crafting a film where every turn merely revels in grotesque surface extremity—and crucially, without anything resembling the interrogative framework of, well, something like Dogville—Aster has created an experience of constrained resonance. Observing grief, terror, and anger subsumed into ancient ritual, Midsommar also sees the spark of talent placed in service of empty form.


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