Reviewed on July 3, 2019
In the weeks leading up to Midsommar’s recent release, part of a conversation between its director, Ari Aster, and Us and Get Out filmmaker Jordan Peele started making the rounds online.
Originally part of a longer interview in Fangoria magazine, the snippet featured Peele’s effusive praise for Aster’s movie, calling it an “ascension of horror.”
It’s an interesting conversation to consider, not just because one talented horror filmmaker is lifting up another’s work, but because Peele and Aster have experienced similar career trajectories, at least in terms of feature film work. Both released their second films this year, on the heels of explosive debuts (Aster’s first movie, Hereditary, came out just last year; Get Out was released in 2017). Both directors are known for creating memorable horror movies with distinct perspectives, characterized by exemplary craft and spiked with pitch-black humor.
Both men’s second films are also well-made pieces of cinematic art that fall just short of the high bar they’ve set for themselves. Midsommar is as beautiful as it is unsettling, and, visually at least, an example of the folk horror subgenre at its finest. However, like Peele’s Us, its relative lack of thematic clarity bumps it down from “great” to “good.”
What’s it about?
Midsommar’s setup contains its most lingering, disturbing elements. Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) are graduate students in the death throes of their long-term relationship. Dani worries she’s too needy, and Christian would clearly rather hang out with his toxic guy friends, one of whom, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) is organizing a group trip to his home village in Sweden over the summer.
While Christian is out drinking with his buddies, Dani experiences a stunning tragedy (minor spoilers): the suicide of her bipolar sister, who takes her parents out with her. In one fell swoop, Dani loses her entire family. Whatever breakup might be brewing between her and Christian is put on hold.
The temporary reconciliation causes Christian to invite Dani along on the trip to Sweden, even though it’s clearly a terrible idea. Pelle leads Christian, Dani, and their friends Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper) to the remote commune where he grew up, which is holding a special 90-year summer solstice festival. At first, the bright sun, joyous faces and colorful floral bouquets make everything seem idyllic. But there’s something a little nastier, bloodier, and more profound brewing just below the surface.
Midsommar doesn’t contain any jump scares. It doesn’t relish in Grand Guignol melodrama, or creative applications of violence or gore. What it does is much scarier for its frank reality. When Aster depicts death, it is sad, it is gross, and it is over quickly. He gives us a disturbing image that doesn’t last long, but is impactful enough that it sticks in your brain, accumulating tragedy around it like a magnet picking up iron filings.
A pair of corpses are quickly zipped up in body bags, then gone with little fuss. A violent ritual sacrifice occurs with a brief, impressive burst of blood and bone, and all of a sudden, we’re no longer looking at a human being, but a sack of meat. These images echo real-life traumatic experiences in the way they repeat or reappear, sometimes showing up in places where you wouldn’t expect them to.
What’s also interesting about the horror of Midsommar is the way Aster builds each of these horrific moments to echo Dani’s inner experience, while using that sense of discomfort to play with horror tropes. The film’s opening tragedy isn’t a surprise — Dani gets a disturbing message from her sister, and she keeps trying to contact her family, unable to keep the event from happening. In the same way, it’s abundantly clear (at least in broad strokes, if not in detail) what’s about to happen to the characters after they arrive in Sweden, but, like Dani, we are powerless to stop what’s about to happen. We can only watch.
For that kind of horror to be effective, it needs to be anchored in an emotionally resonant performance. Of course, Pugh is more than up to the task. Midsommar is a strangely cathartic work, as Dani experiences profound grief with no proper emotional support, then goes through a refining fire of experiences that allow her to process those feelings in a primal way. Pugh expresses that combination of anxiety, pain, loneliness, and repression in a way that feels deep and real.
Just as affecting are the film’s visuals and bleach-white photography. Much has been said about cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s work on the film, and it’s warranted. There is, of course, a lot of irony in showing nasty things happening against a beautiful backdrop, but just as important is that shooting in daylight means it’s harder to look away. It’s also in keeping with Aster’s realistic approach to death and horror. Bad things don’t have to happen at night, or in shadow. Just as often, they happen when the sun is shining, and there’s nothing pretty about them when they do.
Midsommar is both an art film and a horror film, meaning that it is ambitious in the way it understands genre and comments on it, but that it doesn’t always contain the pulpy payoff one hopes for when watching this kind of movie. Part of the fun of watching a horror film, particularly one that belongs to a specific subgenre, is being able to recognize upcoming plot points, and revel in the goofy ways characters make poor choices. Midsommar often is funny, but it would be inaccurate to describe the film as fun.
The film also never quite settles on a clear metaphor, though there are plenty of options to pick from. There’s the possibility of religious commentary (it feels meaningful, for instance, that Christian is portrayed as appropriationist, selfish, and emotionally distant, given his name). There’s also theme of navigating personal trauma, which seems to be the plan from the outset, but isn’t really addressed until the last third of the film. There’s also a discussion about cultural understandings of life and death, though that imagery, while frequent, doesn’t seem to be the movie’s central point so much as an aesthetic choice that carries significance. There are a lot of ideas swirling around in Midsommar, but the lack of commitment to one or two keeps it from having a sharp perspective to communicate.
The craft of Midsommar is undeniable. Even if the movie may not have a recognizable motivating worldview, it’s clear that as an artist, Ari Aster does. Although the plotting feels loose and sometimes unfocused, Aster’s visual approach–and the performances he gets from his cast–communicate so much about his feelings and interests. It may not be entertainment per se, but as a work of art, and as a second step forward in a promising career, it’s absolutely cinema that’s worth engaging with.