Director: Ari Aster
Notable Cast: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter, Ellora Torchia, Archie Madekwe
When the first film someone makes is one that comes down with a massive splash for both the genre and the cultural mainstream, the follow-up film needs to be something special. This is the situation that Ari Aster found himself in after the release of Hereditary. While his previous film tended to divide more casual audiences, it’s instant resonating impact with the horror community and critics could not be ignored. It’s not often that a director and writer is thrown into the category as a genre genius with one film, but that’s what happened. The instant success of that film allows Aster even more leeway in his second feature and distributor A24 is game to back it. This is where Aster’s sophomore effort, Midsommar, comes into play. The film might be bigger and brighter, but is that always better in horror? That’s the challenge that Midsommar attempts to hit straight on. Despite some of the brilliance that is being displayed here in the film, Midsommar also feels like a film that is trying to be that next step for the director and doesn’t quite hit its mark in the same amazing ways that Hereditary does (and still does). It’s bold and epic for what constitutes a relatively intimate horror film. There are things that Aster brings to the game that continues to impress in its execution and concept. However, the lacking balance to the art, horror, and set up/pay off makes Midsommar ambitiously flawed too.
One aspect that deserves respect in the film is how big and bold it can be when the film wants to be. This approach is indicated immediately from its pre-title cold opening. There are no punches pulled as the film creates a juxtaposition between its cold, urban, and incredibly dark opening to the rest of the brightly lit, meadow laden setting that composes 80% of the film. Midsommar sets the stage for its two main leads with tight and expertly executed dread for an impressive pay off moment in this opening sequence. It works as though this was his way of transitioning an audience from the scenarios and tones of his last film and towards the rest of this new one.
From this emotional and heavy point, Midsommar sets up its premise where five young adult friends are given the opportunity to experience first hand one of the key rituals of a secluded sect of people in Sweden. They have their guide, a man who comes from the village, and the film indicates that they may have met in their anthropological collegiate program, but that’s less of a theme and more of a plot device to get them there and create some discourse between the friends as things decidedly tip off-kilter. After such a brutal opening, Aster pulls back and resets the film at this point and rightfully so. His genre-bending that mixes Wicker Man concepts with a modern spin of pitch-black humor and a building sense of unease that rollercoasters around its themes of toxic relationships and supportive friends and family is impressive to say the least. The tones of its sun mixed surface utopia and the gurgling unease of its lead, Florence Pugh who shines brighter then the film in her moments of anxious collapse, make for such an enticing concept it’s easy to overlook the flaws. Aster embeds the film with brilliantly executed visuals, maximizing the slightly discomforting angles and designs of the buildings and clothes as he allows the film to breathe in its many soon to be iconic sequences like a disturbing cliff sequence or the disillusioned May Pole dance.
Despite all of these fantastic things that Midsommar has going for it, the film does struggle with some key aspects to lift it to that next level. At a butt-numbing 147 minutes, Midsommar oddly meanders through many of its ritual sequences and still feels as though it’s jamming in as much character and plot as possible for audiences to discover down the road. Like the previous film, it’s obvious that this film is meant to be one that’s analyzed on multiple viewings and perhaps those moments where the narrative drags on a bit too long are littered with small detailing that will blossom with further inspection, but the balance seems off. There are teases left and right for even more content with bears and “pure” profits who need to be interpreted by elders in the village and many of those don’t inherently pay off. For the most part, I have to give Aster the benefit of the doubt here as Hereditary was a film that only became more effective with continued viewings but on initial watch the script feels both vague and simultaneously bloated. The script feels as though it was trying to live up to expectations of bigger and bolder that come from the instant success of its predecessor and Aster almost pulls it off, but it ends up feeling both unbalanced and ambitiously flawed as it plays out.
Expectations are sometimes a terrible thing and Midsommar slightly struggles to live up to what audiences want without sacrificing its own strengths for its larger than life intimacy. It’s still incredible for most of what it has to offer – it’s right hook to the face cold open, the visual slathering of anti-horror techniques, the performances, the score, and the design all make this film a potent vehicle for its messages about toxic relationships and finding a place of support. It’s when the film attempts to either live up to the expectations (or defy them) that it exudes a sense of how hard it’s trying to find its own balance and place in the horror echelon. Midsommar does feel like the kind of cinematic experience that will continue to bloom with repeated watches, but no amount of bright sunshine, dynamic emotional breakdowns and jazzy hand waving will pull it out from the shadow of Hereditary as a cornerstone of the ill-named and currently popular “elevated” horror movement.
Written By Matt Reifschneider