Director Ari Aster made a huge splash last year with Hereditary, his feature length debut. The film was one of the most polarizing of the year, with critics lauding his visual style and deranged eye for cinematic gore, while audiences were increasingly frustrated by the lack of a cohesive plot that at times gave the impression that the film was just viscera for its own sake. I agreed with audiences for the most part. I loved the horror effects, and Toni Collette gave an outstanding performance given the scattershot dialogue and story points she was given. In the end, for me, Aster’s potential wasn’t quite realized due to the utter nonsensical nature of the story that broke its own rules immediately after establishing them. Still, it was my sincere desire that Aster’s next project would be an improvement.
I’m beyond happy to say that his follow-up, Midsommar, accomplished that and so much more. Not only does this folk horror acid trip continue to show off Aster’s eye for visuals and shocking gore, but this time we get all that in service to an actual story, one that’s interesting, compelling, and at times oddly relatable.
Aster’s apparent goal here is to make sure the audience is perpetually unsettled, and he meets that in a number of ways. From the opening shots he’s already commanding your emotional attention and toying with like a puppet, as the film starts with what looks like a medieval tapestry parting in the center to shots of a forest in winter as a single woman’s voice sings in a foreign tongue, only to be jarringly cut off by the ringing of a telephone and a smash cut to exterior shots of a city at night. We haven’t even had one line of dialogue and already Aster is expertly manipulating the audience’s expectations.
When the story actually does get underway, his script establishes a failing, yet believable relationship between the two leads, Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh from Fighting With My Family, which I heard good things about but didn’t watch because pro wrestling is dumb, Vince McMahon is evil, and I refuse to pay to see a 90-minute commercial that makes him wealthier) and Christian Hughes (Jack Reynor of Sing Street). Dani’s last name tells you all you need to know about her character (Ardor, i.e. passion), as she’s under an insane amount of pressure to maintain her relationship, and suffers from anxiety and panic attacks (throughout the film she is seen taking sleeping pills and Ativan, an emergency anxiety drug; I know because I’ve taken it myself now and again).
Christian has been lackadaisical about the four-year coupling, and is looking for a convenient way to end it, but when Dani is struck by unimaginable tragedy, he’s forced to double down for her sake. He’s very much NOT a good boyfriend. He’s not attentive to Dani’s need and he forgets basic facts of the relationship like their anniversary or even her birthday. The latest of his half-assed commitment is inviting Dani to accompany him to Sweden along with his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper of The Good Place) and Mark (Will Poulter of The Maze Runner and We’re the Millers, by far the most famous name in the cast). The trip is part of Josh’s anthropology thesis project, visiting the rural commune home of their other friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who has invited them to take part in their Midsommar festival. Like the rest of his relationship, Christian has only invited Dani out of a sense of obligation rather than genuine interest in spending time with her. She only learns about the trip two weeks beforehand when the guys discuss it casually at a party.
Once in Sweden, the group travels north to Hälsingland, home of Pelle’s people, the Hårga. The group meets Pelle’s best friend/brother Ingemar (Hampus Hallberg), along with his English friends, engaged couple Simon and Connie (Archie Madekwe and Ellora Torchia, respectively). One of the few minor flaws of the film is how clearly marked for death just about every ancillary character is, but the execution is such that it’s more than forgivable. After everyone partakes of some magic mushrooms, they take a long hike to the pastoral Hårga commune.
These two scenes contain two of the best elements of the film’s visual style, apart from the actual gore. First, many of the characters take hallucinogenic drugs throughout the film, producing a “tripping” effect where the landscape (trees, grass, flowers, etc.) take on a great undulating effect, at times looking like the very Earth is breathing as deeply as the drugged-out tourists or the chant-heavy grunts of the Hårga themselves. The characters themselves also are shot in extreme close-up so you can see how contracted their pupils are when they’re under the influence. You honestly feel like you’re tripping balls with them half the time.
The second is that with all the natural light and wide outdoor spaces of the commune (particularly during the summer solstice and the midnight sun), Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski are very particular about what bits we see and when. The shots linger just a little longer than to be comfortable, and at the opportune moments, knowing pans reveal more buildings, animals, and people, all of which are just a little off. It’s amazing camera work and even more expert blocking and choreography for the slew of background actors. Aster and Pogorzelski make sure we only see what they want us to see, and it’s joyously unsettling.
It’s all in service to Aster making sure you never get comfortable. Whether it’s a bear in a cage, a foreshadowing bit of tapestry, or children gallivanting along as they play “Skin the Fool,” there’s so much there to put you off, and that’s well before we get to the nuts and bolts of the actual nine-day festival, which contains a litany of surprises and shocks. It’s also to the film’s credit that just about every visual and dialogue-based clue is paid off in some way. On a personal note, there was a bit of unintended dismay when I saw the film the other night (my second viewing in as many days – it’s that good). About midway through the film, the main shock of the Ridgecrest Earthquake hit. The epicenter was about 2.5 hours away from Santa Monica, but even from that distance, the 7.1 quake was enough for about half the crowd to clear the auditorium. I hope they got refunds, because the movie didn’t stop.
The most surprising thing of all that keeps you on the edge of your seat – not out of fear so much as again just being a bit uneasy – is the humor. This film is littered with some really strong comedy, most of which comes from Will Poulter’s Mark, clearly playing the frat boyish “Ugly American.” But there’s plenty to go around, and what makes it so beautiful is that it doesn’t detract from the story or the actual horror (clearly inspired by classics like the original Wicker Man and Texas Chainsaw Massacre among others). All these jokes combined with the extreme horror elements would appear to be incompatible on the surface, but the two end up complementing each other so well that it almost beggars belief.
There are so many other great things about this film that I feel I have to mention only briefly, or this review will turn into a novel. The performances are incredibly strong, particularly Florence Pugh and her uncanny realistic depictions of panic attacks. I’ve suffered from them myself, and I’ve seen a fair few. In a way it’s the most disturbing part of the film, because every time she has one, it’s not because she herself is in any kind of mortal danger, but instead it’s the most natural response a person might have to what she witnesses across a spectrum of trauma. It makes her character that much more sympathetic and relatable, and the brutally honest portrayal makes you want to reach into the screen and hug her.
Not to be outdone is the Swedish cast playing the Hårga. A mostly matriarchal society led by an elder named Siv (Gunnel Fred), the cult-like commune (about the only thematic/structural link to Hereditary) is fully committed to the bit, undertaking the main activities of the festival with aplomb, but also performing ultra-empathetic screams and convulsions to “feel the pain” of their brethren in anguish. They’re organized, deliberate, at times erotic, but it always makes sense within the world that Aster has created.
Related to this is the orchestral/choral score performed by British electronic musician Bobby Krlic, known by his stage name “The Haxan Cloak.” Instrumentally, the music is just the right amount of creepy, making great use of wooden and stringed instruments to evoke the image of an emo Renaissance Faire. Combined with that is the Hårga constantly interjecting with native pastoral lyrical songs for just about every occasion, from death rituals to cutting wood to (in hilariously off-putting fashion) mating. The voices are beautiful, but also just a bit sinister, and it works to perfection. It’s almost like a twisted take on Tolkien-esque Elvish songs, and is by far the most unique score I’ve heard in a film all year.
There were basically only two things I didn’t entirely like, but again, they’re so minor that they’re hardly worth mentioning. One, as I previously said, is that every future victim is clearly marked for death from the moment of their introduction that it takes just a bit of the sting out of the moment when it happens. There’s no suspense to any of the eventual kills, and I think Aster recognizes that, so he makes sure to capitalize on the other bits of shock value in those particular scenes.
Secondly, and related to this, one of the deaths is handled a little shoddily thanks to a sudden character turn that isn’t quite earned, and feels shoehorned in to give the Hårga a reason to take that person out. Now, I get why it’s done. All of the main deaths are fully intended as part of the proceedings, and would happen regardless. But from a narrative standpoint, Aster sets up a reason for each death to be of the victim’s own making, a sort of punishment for some sin or other. The victims are walking dead from their first scenes, but they always do something to bring about their own demise at a particular moment. With one character – and I won’t say who – it seems that Aster, in an otherwise brilliant script, painted himself into a corner and forced some sort of cardinal transgression to bring about their end. Again, it doesn’t bother me, and there’s way too much to like to dwell on it too much, but it was noticeably different from all the other kills.
Really though, Ari Aster has proven himself beyond anything I could have hoped. He showed sparks of greatness, along with a strong cinematic eye, in the otherwise slapdash Hereditary. Here, every bit of potential is realized. The gore and horror effects continue to be top notch. The acting is superb, not just from the leads, but from the entire cast, from the emerging stars to the extras. The camera work and score are among the best that have come out this year. And most importantly, Aster has proven that he can write a coherent story that grips you, toys with you, then goes right for your gut as you watch blood and guts get spilled on the plains.
Also, I know now to never take shrooms with Swedes.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What was the most surprising improvement you’ve ever seen in a filmmaker? Could you finish sexually if your partner’s mother sang a lullaby during? Let me know! Or, maybe not!
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