Much like his first effort, Hereditary, director Ari Aster’s follow up, Midsommar, is an exercise in exacting detail. From the meticulous set design, to the beautiful execution of each camera movement, to the painterly quality of almost every shot composition, Aster is an uncompromising film artist. That he uses his skills in order to shock and disgust his audiences (as well as make them laugh) is part of what makes him such a unique filmmaker. Midsommar is Stanley Kubrick meets Dario Argento. At the same time, you won’t see anything like its sui generis sensibility on screen this year.
Comparing Aster’s singular aesthetic to that of other filmmakers is a contradiction that makes sense, considering my experience with his latest film. Unlike Hereditary, a movie that kept me off-kilter the entire time with surprising shifts in plot and thematic focus, I felt I had Midsommar figured out fairly early on. I was right when it came to the broad strokes of the story. But Aster surprised me with the gruesome specifics of his folk-story nightmare.
I knew that I was walking into a horror movie about a group of Americans traveling to a small village in Sweden to observe a rare cultural/religious festival. I – and probably you – have seen enough movies to know that these hapless travelers are in for it. It’s the movie’s relentless state of psychological terror and the specifics of just what will happen next as the story unfolds that is so unsettlingly satisfying.
Aster seems preoccupied with the grieving process as it relates to tragedy. In the opening minutes of Midsommar, the main character, a college student named Dani, experiences a horrific loss in her family. The sense of existential dread that Aster creates in this opening sequence – which plays out like an urban legend, another term for a modern folk tale – sets the tone for the rest of the picture. Dani is completely unmoored by the experience, and Christian, her boyfriend, invites her to come along with him to Sweden. He does so over the protestations of his friends and travel companions, and only when he finally decides to tell Dani he’s going at all.
Dani and Christian have only been dating for a few years, and their romance seems destined for a breakup. Aster builds his horror movie around this young, crumbling relationship, and the writer/director gets the dynamic just right. Christian is in no way mature enough to be in a serious relationship (I know, because I was just like Christian once upon a time). We see this by his decision to take off for Sweden while avoiding telling Dani for as long as he can. It’s only Christian’s sense of guilt and his pity for Dani’s fragile emotional state that makes him invite her.
Not helping his maturity level are Christian’s friends, Josh, Pelle, and especially Mark. Pelle is a native of Sweden, and he has invited his American friends to come home with him to experience the festival that happens in his village only once every 90 years. Josh, who, like Christian, is an anthropology grad student, is incorporating the trip into his studies. Mark is just tagging along for the opportunity to bed many beautiful Swedish women, and he encourages Christian to dump Dani, so he can do the same.
Mark is totally authentic, but at the same time, the most unbelievable character in the movie. His obsession with getting laid, even as the happenings in the small village take a disturbing, ominous turn, borders on ridiculous.
Of course, the root of Mark’s obsession, sex – and more specifically, procreation – lies at the heart of the festival he and his friends are reluctantly forced to join. Aster lays that obsession bare as the movie unfolds with increasingly outlandish developments. Midsommar is a movie fixated on ritual, and Aster’s immaculate attention to detail makes those rituals all the more disturbing. The pacing of his storytelling, combined with the rhythm of Lucian Johnston’s editing, makes the march to Midsommar’s horrific climax inexorable.
Astor’s visual style – made all the more gorgeous with the help of Pawel Pogorzelski’s sun-drenched cinematography – is mesmeric. Just like in Hereditary, he includes inventive camera tricks. One involves an overhead tracking shot that seamlessly transitions from Dani walking through a door in an apartment to the bathroom of an airplane. There is also a lengthy sequence shot upside down during a car ride that is evocative of Alfonso Cuarón’s work in Children of Men.
He also knows how to write to his visual strengths. There are several drug hallucination scenes that allow Astor to run wild. The first, when the group of friends take mushrooms together upon arriving at the village, has Dani perceiving the nature surrounding her as slowly undulating. The dread sets in as Dani’s experience on the mushrooms increasingly turns into a bad trip. The same scene is also very funny, like when Mark freaks out upon being told that the sun never really sets during the summer in Sweden.
What jump scares there are in Midsommar are judiciously used. Astor doesn’t rely too heavily on them, making the ones present all the more effective. The triumph here is one of tone. There is an existential, psychological terror at work in Midsommar. It builds to a climax of images that are as provocative as they are disturbing. Astor uses the generic conventions of horror in fresh, unpredictable new ways. His movie is beautiful and terrifying, making Ari Aster’s cinematic voice an exciting one.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- Aster is great at making very layered movies. Dani’s family tragedy, her (seemingly) imminent breakup with Christian, and the craziness of the festival in the village are all swirling around one another in Midsommar. Aster is also a meticulous artist who puts some gorgeous and horrifying images on screen.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I felt such a connection to Dani throughout the film. It’s possible to argue that’s a weakness of Midsommar, since we never get that emotionally close to her travelling companions, but I would disagree. This is Dani’s movie, as the final shot of the film confirms.
- “We sometimes need to invite outside people.” That is the key line of the movie, and if it doesn’t strike dread in your heart when you hear it, you aren’t paying attention.
- There is a girl (probably 15 or so) who goes through a transformation in the movie, and it’s symbolized by her wearing red lipstick afterward. Any moment she’s on screen with that lipstick is striking. Aster’s use of color throughout the movie is captivating.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- I attended an advance screening, which from what I could tell was press and their plus ones only. There was quite a bit of laughter. I think some of it was American immaturity when it comes to nudity and sexually explicit content, but some of it was as a pressure valve to take the edge off the creepiness of the movie.