[**WARNING: Spoilers Ahead!]
I was eagerly anticipating the follow up film to Ari Aster’s outstanding horror family drama Hereditary (and so was the sold-out Wednesday night audience it seemed) – the ticket salesperson told me that screenings had been selling out since the day prior when it opened. First of all, it should be said that Aster’s debut feature film Hereditary is one of the best modern horror films I’ve seen in a very long time – The Witch is another one that is outstanding and both of these films are debuts by highly intelligent directors who are invested in character relationships and camera work – the horror elements are just icing on the cake. A quite devilishly rich cake.
Midsommar features a group of twenty-somethings (foremost among them Dani – whose bipolar sister has recently gassed herself to death, taking their parents with her – and Dani’s boyfriend Christian) who travel to the north of Sweden to witness a friend’s home village/commune as it participates in a festival that supposedly only occurs every ninety years. It’s soon apparent that the Swedish friend, Pelle, belongs to a secluded cult that participates in some VERY ancient rites that are very much outside of our normative forms of behaviour, aided by a whole lot of hallucinogenics. I don’t really feel bad talking about where this movie’s going because it’s fairly obvious as the filmmakers have pointed out: people draw immediate comparisons to The Wicker Man as soon as they see the poster – the outsiders are lured in as sacrifices to the fertility of nature and the longevity of the cult.
In an L.A. Times article, Swedish production designer Henrik Svensson claimed that all of the aspects of the film are based on researched Swedish practices while filmmaker Ari Aster was more careful to describe it as ‘folklore.’ Ari Aster has stated quite emphatically that his interest was not in making a slasher film (as originally proposed to him) but instead made a film about an unhappy breakup (taking inspiration from a recent one in his own life) against the backdrop of the weird ritual cult practices of Pelle’s commune. Be that as it may, the relationship stuff in the movie is not particularly unique or memorable and the cult stuff quickly overshadows it. Early on, we understand that Christian has been wanting to break up with the emotionally overwrought Dani for a long time but can’t bear to pull the trigger. Once her family dies, he especially can’t do it. He hopes to travel to Sweden without her (he and his friends are anthropology students) and doesn’t tell her about his plans but Dani insinuates herself. He doesn’t seem like such a bad guy but once they’re in Sweden, the film changes so that Dani is the sympathetic one and Christian is the insensitive jerk. We also get a little bit more differentiation in terms of the other characters but not enough to make the characters really compelling or identifiable. This is pretty standard fare, I suppose, for horror films – Eli Roth’s Hostel (another intelligent horror I really like) works the same way in terms of degrees of characterization and dialogue and putting young unaware Americans in an unfamiliar, vulnerable situation. However, compared to the very tight, thoughtful, nuanced, psychological layering of Hereditary, Midsommar comes up short.
In fact, my favourite part of the film was the very beginning which starts off with medieval style illustrations depicting the cult’s rites, moving to wintry shots of northern Sweden accompanied by an eerie choral soundtrack before abruptly moving to smash cuts zeroing in on an American suburban home where Dani’s family lives. Each of the latter cuts is matched with the ringing of the unanswered telephone as Dani tries to frantically call to see if everything is alright. This leads to a very emotional phone call between Christian and a teary-eyed Dani where Dani is framed in unsettling close-up before we finally see oblique shots of the police and paramedics as they open the garage belonging to Dani’s family and the tube linking the carbon monoxide to the house – orchestrated by the bipolar sister.
The themes of death and belonging/family end up rearing themselves in the Swedish commune/cult but they don’t tie together as satisfactorily as in Hereditary. Fans of Hereditary will see many similar themes and aspects including: dysfunctional family relationships, dire decisions on the part of family members that affect the rest of the family, archaic cults that have basis in historical research, protagonists who are decimated by the age long practices and plans of said cults and sucked in despite there being literally tons of signals all around them. If I have a complaint about Aster’s films, it is this: his protagonists never have a chance; unlike other horror films, we’re never given the momentary release of seeing the characters we identify with recognize and struggle against their fates. Not a single reasonable chance – Aster seems particularly tied to these deterministic plots that sink into degrees of tragic annihilation for their characters. Midsommer just has more moments of mordant and surreal humour in terms of the path that takes its characters there.
That being said, I’m glad I saw the movie. Aster’s obviously a brilliant guy who’s thinking about the movies he’s creating. He’s also stretching his wings in terms of stylistic techniques. Besides the very strong opening, there’s a shot of the travellers in a car as they approach the commune which gets turned upside down (kind of similar to an amazing shot in Hereditary where Toni Collette visits an older woman’s apartment) and then we see the oncoming road (once again, upside down with a white sky that might as well not be there) from the car’s perspective for quite a while. It’s all handled in a single mesmerizing take and it’s held without cutting away. Quite an eerie moment, evoking the strangeness of the landscape and the environment like those incredible opening shots of The Shining without quite mimicking them.
Unlike Hereditary (and The Shining), Midsommar does not technically possess any supernatural elements although there is a fair amount of post-production CGI to enhance the hallucinatory aspects of staying at the commune and ingesting the stuff that is given to the characters – I wasn’t sure how I felt about this and I suppose people can either take it or leave it – the actor who plays Christian made a big deal out of it mimicking the actual process of being on mushrooms. I don’t know that this film will prove to be one of the filmmaker’s most memorable but just by virtue of being intelligent and thoughtful, it stands head and shoulders above the average horror flick. It signals a director who is obviously capable of making fine films that do not require him to be a horror director in the first place but obviously enjoys constructing films in that vein.