‘Midsommar’ Review: An Improvement, but Not for Aster
Amid last week's release of the much anticipated Spider-Man: Far From Home, and Danny Boyle's heavily advertised love letter to the Beatles, Yesterday, Ari Aster's Midsommar opened to a smaller, but nonetheless excited audience, eager to see the young director follow-up his widely loved first feature film, Hereditary (2018). Those looking for a fun film full of disturbing images that will make their skin crawl will need to look no further this Summer season. But those who are looking to be gripped with the same sort of emotional terror hiding around every dark corner of Aster's debut feature may find themselves leaving the theater wanting more.
These recent years have been a renaissance for horror films. Between Jordan Peele's Get Out (2017) and follow-up Us (2019), the consistent additions to the multi-director Conjuring "universe", and Ari Aster's breakout hit Hereditary, it's clear audiences are responding to this new brand of highly immersive, well conceived horror/drama. And I have no doubt that Midsommar will be remembered, in time, as a film that falls within this class.
Sure, Midsommar riffs on a common convention in the genre: A group of friends escape the hum drum of their daily lives to visit a remote place, only to realize they probably should have stayed home. You think you've seen it before. However, films with similar concepts, like The Hills Have Eyes (Craven, 1977) or Cannibal Holocaust (Deodato, 1980), seem to draw on an increasingly more tone deaf xenophobia- one either directed to social/economic, or ethnic minorities. Aster, on the other hand, places his characters in a comparably familiar, if not disarming space. The rising action is marked by long shots of paved roads cutting through grassy knolls that don't look particularly foreign to the average viewer. Similarly, the cultists who will eventually come to terrorize the young adults are white, speak English for the most part, and share many social conventions with their prey.
Of course this film still has the unnerving sense of isolation and insecurity, reminiscent of the vacation gone awry subgenre, but instead of being the primary sources of terror, they facilitate what Aster really seems to be getting at with this film. Even if the group had visited a quaint cultural festival in the Swedish countryside free of violent fanatics, this vacation had been doomed from the beginning. Protagonist Dani (Florence Pugh) hadn't been invited in the first place, most likely because her long time boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) had planned on breaking up with her long before the Summer. However, after tragedy strikes Dani, Christian can't bring him self to end their relationship and has no choice but to invite her along despite his friends' opposition.
Along the way, as the cult's practices grow more and more sinister with each passing day, we witness Dani and Christian's rocky relationship crumble as she comes to realize that she does not need his reluctant support, fueled more by a feeling of responsibility for her mental health than any actual love. Whereas similar films might use the "us versus them" paradigm to drive it's central characters together, the terror enacted on Aster's travelers only pushes them further apart, until the audience is unsure of what was truly the greatest threat, blood thirsty religious fanatics, or the possibility that we might not know who are loved ones are, or how they are capable of hurting us.
These themes aren't so unlike those explored in Aster's first film. Hereditary focuses on the ways in which familial relationships shape our pasts, presents, and futures in a way that casts doubt on the very notion of free will and self realization. The characters in Midsommar, on the other hand, appear to have more leverage to affect their own fates, and in that way, should be more interesting. That being said, they weren't. By film's end, the remaining tourists were not acting out of gained knowledge, experience, or because of any personal development. The quick succession of events that catalyzed the film's resolution were not only influenced by the drug addled minds of the central protagonists, but didn't seem to meaningfully advance any particular theme within the story line.
Aster is clearly an artist. Midsommar is as visually stimulating, if not more so, than its predecessor. However, what it makes up for in a visually gripping mise en scene, marked by several instances of stomach churning gore, it lacks in its unassertive story, and unlikable characters. This is not to say that the film is without merit. I absolutely feel that it is an improvement on a genre that has struggled to stay fresh and modern, and applaud Aster for another attempt to present a film that both frightens and challenges its audience. But like any visitors who make it out of this strange Swedish village, I probably won't be revisiting it any time soon.