MIDSOMMAR solidifies Ari Aster as a contemporary master of bizarro horror

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There is a handful of contemporary auteur filmmakers that are bringing something completely fresh to the horror genre, while still managing to derive influence from classics of the past– Jennifer Kent, Robert Eggers, Jordan Peele– to name a few.  But none have excited me quite to the degree of the eccentric, strange, provocative, ballsy filmmaking style that Hereditary (and now Midsommar) creator Ari Aster possesses.

Aster has described his sophomore film as an “apocalyptic breakup movie,” a “fairytale,” “a Wizard of Oz for perverts,” and “a companion piece to Hereditary“– and he could not have been more spot-on with these descriptions.  Sometimes suspenseful, other times whimsical; sometimes grisly and horrifically violent, other times darkly comedic and cheery (well, sorta); sometimes traumatic, other times smirking and knowing– Midsommar is messier, more disjointed, and dare I say slightly more ambitious than its predecessor– yet still feels like a distant cousin to Aster’s debut feature, likely because it just oozes with his aesthetic.  Two feature-lengths and a few short films into his career, Aster has already established a unique style that nobody else touches.

It feels difficult to review Midsommar (coming to us just one year after Hereditary, mind you) without giving too much away.  After reading a handful of critiques written after the film’s premiere last week that gave away too much, which unfortunately left me with piecing everything together by the film’s finale (not that there is necessarily a mystery element to Midsommar like there was for Hereditary.  The narrative is somewhat straightforward.)…But still.  I’ll do my best to be as vague as possible, so your experience isn’t tampered with.

We meet a grad student couple in their twenties, Dani (Florene Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) whose four-year relationship is hanging on by a thread.  Within an opening sequence that still succeeded to get a “Woah” reaction out of me (even after it had been spoiled for me) Dani is in the middle of a nervous breakdown after gut-wrenching tragedy strikes her family.  Florence Pugh’s howls of wallowing grief, akin to Toni Collette’s guttural cries in Hereditary, are just one of the many specific things that she is asked to do in her performance.  (And delivers.)  Aster has a specific empathy for his female characters: just like the women in Hereditary who were blamed and were forced to give way too much of themselves for male figures, the female protagonist in Midsommar is also way too sacrificial of herself, initially.  In spite of all she is going through, Dani is empathetic and understanding– often gently and unproblematically expressing her concerns to her dismissive, lazy, passive, and cowardly boyfriend, who later forgets about her birthday, blames others for his own misgivings, and never takes responsibility for his actions.  Yet, surprisingly, I never hated him quite as much as I wanted to.  Aster, for the most part, creates complicated, human characters that you have mixed feelings towards, like any other living, breathing individual you would meet in life.

Christian’s three male friends let it slip out to the unknowing Dani that they are planning on going on a summer trip to Sweden for a “crazy festival that only happens ever 90 years” to visit Pelle’s “family” (played by the blue-eyed, soft-spoken Vilhelm Blomgren).  The ever-obnoxious, somewhat unnecessary friend Mark (Will Poulter) is visibly irritated that Dani has decided to join them on their boys trip, while the thoughtful, studious Josh (William Jackson Harper, who I wished had more screen time) wants to focus on his thesis while traveling to the foreign land.  When the four arrive at their destination, the friendly, but freakishly weird commune begins to show the outsiders their customs, which leads to both sinister and breathtakingly beautiful events.  Sometimes people burn alive; other times flowers bloom and plants breathe.  It’s called balance.  Eventually, people start disappearing and tension builds amongst the main four friends, while Dani and Christian’s relationship further unravels.

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In certain ways, in terms of its pacing and its arthouse absurdness, Midsommar can make Hereditary seem like a mainstream film, which is really saying something.  One of the few issues I had was its 2 hour, 20 minute run time that does slag at a few points.  Nothing specific I would have cut out; just perhaps a few trimmings here and there would have improved its pacing.  But, at the same time, I never felt bored: Aster succeeds at world-building.  He includes ordinary conversations and day-to-day activities that feel as if we are living within this commune with the characters.  The film feels lived in, which balances out its more trippy, psychedelic moments.

Like his previous film, Aster again works with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski to give us absolutely stunning visuals.  The camera olympically follows car rides from an upside down viewpoint and literally flips angles at any given moment.  The crisply white, unforgiving, bright lighting makes the filmmakers’ “struggles” with chasing the sun during the shoot entirely worth it.  The pastels of the Swedish beauty that surrounds the compound (except the film was actually shot in Hungary) will be aesthetically pleasing to any flower lover.  Two sequences involving an all-encompassing floral gown and a Maypole dance I simply could not take my eyes off of.  The set design places you exactly in the pastoral headspace that you’re witnessing on screen.  And, for what Hereditary gave us in miniatures, Midsommar gives us in foreshadowing drawings.  Pay close attention, if only because they are impeccably drawn and menacing.

While this film will forever be indebted to Robin Hardy’s 1973 folk masterpiece The Wicker Man (and also makes a reference to the Nic Cage-starring remake, which floored me!) I was delighted to see direct inspiration from another ’70s daylight horror classic, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.  I won’t reveal specifically how or why, but I will mention that gorehounds should be pleased by the effects.  Aster knows how to obtain a visceral reaction from the audience: I squirmed and felt my mouth fall agape to the imagery of faces getting bashed in (to which I felt every blow), torn limbs, stretched flesh.  Reminiscent of dozens of slasher films, most of the deaths are either justified or satisfying to watch– except for one that stings a bit more than the others.  And with no darkness to hide behind, every violent image is right smack in the audiences’ faces.

I’ve hinted at Midsommar‘s (self-aware) absurdity, but in case you needed more evidence, you’ll be at witness to darkly funny sequences regarding perversion, pubic hair, implied incest, flailing male bodies, and a deformed young man named Ruben who I needed more of, frankly.  And as a master of tension, the real unsettling behavior comes from Aster’s commune’s chants and breaths in creepy unison– which he never gives reasons for.

Additionally, I haven’t seen nearly enough people praising the amazing musical score created by The Haxan Cloak, which switches from ominous to fantastical.  Even harps are incorporated to enhance a Disney-like fable experience that I adored.  Not an easy task to follow up Colin Stenson’s score for Hereditary, but The Haxan Cloak delivers something entirely iconic on its own.

While not always super focused, the film’s varying themes include: toxic Americans who barge in on other cultures; the circle of birth, death, rebirth; finding/creating family.  However, Aster is most interested in the transformation of codependency into validation/liberation.  I felt the grin spread across my face during the film’s finale, as it felt like validation for any woman who has ever loved a man whom completely disregarded her feelings.  (Of course, not just women will be able to relate to this notion, but Aster purposely places his female lead as the person we most identify with.)

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Queen.

While imperfect, Midsommar will stand alongside The Wicker Man as one of the weirdest, greatest folk horror films of all time.  It’s a damn shame that Aster is done with the horror genre for the time being, because I would follow him to any dark (or brightly pastel-colored) path that he wishes to lead me to.  Skoal!

Let the festivities begin when Midsommar hits theaters July 3.

Grade: A-

One thought on “MIDSOMMAR solidifies Ari Aster as a contemporary master of bizarro horror

  1. Pingback: Before we had MIDSOMMAR, we had The Wicker Man (1973) | Horrormonal

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