Ari Aster earned a lot of well-deserved attention with his 2018 feature film debut “Hereditary”. It was a dark and unsettling bit of psychological horror that he wrote and directed. The film was greeted with high praise from critics, a little more mixed reactions from audiences, yet most were anxious to see what he would do next.
Well now we know. Aster’s follow-up film “Midsommar” sees him staying within the psychological horror sphere. But here he adds a ton more weirdness and clearly aims to push the envelope by being more shocking and disturbing than with his previous film (and that’s saying something). Unfortunately these ambitions push things too far, and “Midsommar” becomes a classic case of creative overkill.
The movie gets off to an incredibly strong start. Much like “Hereditary”, this film is built upon the fractured psyche of its lead character. An extremely well done prologue lays the foundation for us. Florence Pugh plays Dani, a young woman broadsided by a horrific family tragedy. Devastated and emotionally frail, she looks to her not-so-comforting boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) for support. But his hollow sympathy can’t hide that he would rather be spending time with his three equally self-absorbed buddies (played by William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, and Will Poulter).
These early scenes are fabulous mainly due to Pugh’s powerful performance. Her projections of grief, anxiety, and vulnerability are both natural and thoroughly convincing. And through these scenes Aster gives us a vivid understanding of Dani’s relationship with Christian. The dialogue subtly yet shrewdly captures a form of psychological abuse we rarely see on screen.
All of that sets the audience up for the acid-trip remainder of the film. Christian and his pals plan a trip to Sweden, to a remote country commune where one of the friends was raised. They reluctantly allow Dani to tag along. Once there they will get to witness a special 9-day festival which takes place every 90 years.
It doesn’t take long to notice something is a little off. At first things appear innocent enough as the white frocked commune members go about their peculiar daily rituals. But what looked like a group of harmless flower children turns out to be a macabre pagan cult with deeply sinister motivations and a special need for “outsiders” at their festival.
Aster begins this leg of his journey with a great grasp on mystery and setting. Early on, the slow drips of information and ever so subtle reveals work well to keep us in a constant state of suspicion and wonder. Aster completely sells us on the perpetually sun-soaked delirium, the off-kilter tone, and the increasingly eerie atmosphere. It’s truly phenomenal filmmaking right up to the point where Aster loses himself to an obsession to be bizarre and make us squirm in our seats.
The final third of the film whole-heartedly commits to progressively getting weirder by the moment. And while always visually impressive, the main characters (most notably Dani) get lost among the madness. During this time you could argue that the commune becomes the centerpiece yet we still learn practically nothing about them. Instead Aster seems more focused on scarring us with imagery than challenging us with thought-provoking themes.
This is probably best seen in an absurdly graphic sex ritual that desperately screams out for attention. Reynor told Indiewire “I wanted as much as we could go for” and there lies the problem. You can see and recognize them REALLY going for it – seeing how far they can push the limits. It badly wants to be shocking and unsettling. I found it to be excessive, off-putting and void of any discernible meaning whatsoever. For me it was a frustrating sign that Aster had completely lost his focus.
Sadly a few other things bring “Midsommar” down. With the exception of Christian, the other supporting characters are barely more than thinly conceived filler. And even Reynor’s performance lacks energy or charisma. That leaves Pugh, a fantastic actress giving a fantastic performance, but who is buried in a final act that’s more interested in visual nuttiness.
There are several questions you could ask that would show cracks in the story’s foundation. But still, movies like this usually beg to be dissected and discussed. “Midsommar” is a bit maddening in its reluctance to provide that kind of food for thought. Is it a movie about grief, emasculation, mental health, spiritual awakening? The movie seems to inadvertently ask “Who cares? Just watch another unnerving scene where the creepy Swedish cult does something else bizarre.” Pugh and the film’s incredible first half deserves better.
VERDICT – 2.5 STARS
Can’t say the premise grabbed me, but such a fan of Pugh.
I was actually really intrigued by the premise and I’m 100% with you on Pugh. She is VERY good here – the film’s greatest strength. I just wish the movie didn’t completely lose itself in its deep desire to shock. So frustrating.
This one had a vibe like The Wicker Man , the original not the horrid Cage piece . I have to say the trailer and look didn’t grip me at all and I wasn’t really a fan of Hereditary . That movie was so depressing and left me with a real bad taste in my mouth so to speak that I doubt I’ll be checking this one out . I like horror movies but have found more and more have such a bleak and “Godless” take on life that one cannot find any sign of redemption or hope within . Unlike older or classic horror . But thats me . Once again I do find your reviews very insightful and fair .
I admit, I was really drawn to the idea of this one. And much like Hereditary, it’s pretty bleak and hope is a pretty foreign concept. I can usually handle that if I feel I’m getting food for thought. This film does give us a little to think about, but it’s all but lost in a final act that is so intent on shocking us and making us squirm. The ridiculous drawn-out sex ritual was just too much.
Of course I wouldn’t see this anyway, so I read the plot on wiki instead. The guy who wrote the movie probably needs therapeutic help, or at least locking up somewhere so he can’t do any more movies. 😊
LOL! He certainly digs down into pretty dark places. Unfortunately this venture really falls apart at the end. You DEFINITELY wouldn’t care for this one! 😂
This one just didn’t look good to me. I liked Hereditary, but I’ve only heard mixed reviews, so far. I’ll wait and maybe rent it. Or not. Fair review, Keith.
Thanks Cindy. It has an incredible start but it becomes a movie so enamored by its weirdness. Really like the first 2/3 of it but the rest had me pulling out my hair.
Bookmarking your review for now. Hoping to see this on Tuesday night (though I couldn’t help but glimpse the so-so star rating — interesting!) I think this film has divided audiences hard, like Hereditary did.
I can understand wanting to go in completely free of influence. I’ll just say this – I think you’re reaction will all come down to how you take the final act. For me it one half of absolutely brilliant filmmaking and a second half of overindulgent, ‘see how weird we can get’ overkill. BUT, people who have had a different reaction to the final third generally seem be onboard with it. Anxious to read your thoughts.
I really want to see this though I haven’t seen Hereditary yet but I’m going to hold off on both of those films for now due to personal reasons at this moment.
I can completely understand that. In many ways they both deal will variations of the same subject. They can be tough to watch.
Totally agree with this fine and balanced review. Ari Aster has a great vision but he needed to really edit it into a more manageable story. No doubt he will receive great acclaim but I was bored by the end and the final ritualistic scenes lost all their power due to the near two-and-a-half hour running time.
A narrative which is essentially Hostel meets The Wicker Man can definitely be told in under two hours and remain impactful. This felt like a long first edit they decided NOT to streamline for pace.
I also felt, apart from Pugh’s deep and powerful arc, the other characters (including the Swedish commune members) were two-dimensional. If Will Poulter’s character was deleted from the film it would have made no impact.
Thank you! As you can probably tell I left the theater pretty frustrated. There is so much I really liked about the movie. But during that final I begin to realize that Aster had nothing much else to say. So we watch him get weirder and weirder. We watch him push the envelope of shock and taste as far as he could. It drove me nuts.
I’m with you, Keith. The themes and structure are exactly the same as Hereditary too; even down to getting the leading actress to give an amazing performance. I guess what he’s saying as a filmmaker is humans can not escape their fate. The problem with Midsommar is we knew the ending but just not how it was going to happen. This, there was just lots of crying and screaming but no tension or suspense. Very frustrating as you say.
And did you notice how much takes place off screen? I’m usually okay with that IF the story can make sense of it and otherwise has enough meat to satisfy us.
Yes, I did. And there were some scenes where the long master shots kept us away from the characters. The villagers were very busy without the characters suspecting anything. Even the distant screams were sort of ignored when the British couple went missing. Lots of holes throughout. I guess symbolism rather than logic was Aster’s main aim.
I too noticed (and chuckled at) the complete dismissal of the distant screams. They kind of glance into the distance then go about their business!
My thoughts on Midsommar are similarly mixed. Coming out of the movie I had much admiration for Aster’s balance between psychological horror and dark comedy as well as the lead performances, but after a day or so I found the movie to be a bit empty. As you mentioned, many of the side characters seemed undercooked; it definitely plays as a cross between The Wicker Man and Dogville but doesn’t quite have the depth of either picture.
I didn’t object to the sex rituals of the film (which play a bit into Aster’s wicked sense of humor), but much of the violence seems gratuitous and unnecessary, which I couldn’t say the same about Hereditary.
“Empty” is a good word. And surprisingly so. I felt Aster had such a good grasp of setup and slow reveal up to a point. But then it seems he ratchets down on shock but little in terms of thought-provoking payoff. To be honest I was rolling my eyes at the big final crescendo moment.
Good point: Midsommar (and Hereditary as well) have great setups but lackluster payoffs. Hereditary though had more fleshed out characters, and its use of sadism and violence seemed more justified and less exploitive.
100% agree. I do remember many people speaking against the ending of Hereditary. At the time I didn’t have an issue with it but over time I’ve fallen more in line with others. Still (as you pointed out) it did feel justified.
Oh I am sorry it didnt work for you more! I think Reynor played Christian well – he was a weak weasel he wasnt supposed to have charisma or Energy. Poulter was the one I thought was bad, he did absolutely nothing with the character
Poulter was so one-dimensional and he rarely had a meaningful line of dialogue. There are two undeniable strengths of the movie – Pugh and Aster’s incredible eye for visuals.
Yikes! I’m not a big fan of movies that are “eerie”, “off-kilter”, and have scenes featuring “absurdly graphic sex rituals”. Just sounds weird for no reason. Thanks for watching and reviewing so I didn’t have to (as if I was ever going to see this)! LOL
All of those things certainly fit that movie. I was pretty disappointed mainly because I had really high hopes. I felt it was beginning to lose its way and then the ludicrous explicit sex ritual scene hit and I began checking out.
Love seeing all of the different vibes on this one. I enjoyed it, moreso than Hereditary. I’m actually interested in rewatching, which isn’t something I can say for Hereditary (I hate comparison but I think it’s how we make sense of a lot of things in this world). I’ve only seen Hereditary once because it is so damn heavy and what not.
However, when I say that, I don’t mean I think it’s better than Hereditary, to me, this lacks a little bit of a through line that Hereditary did have. But, this is still a pretty riveting movie, and so different than what’s out now. I sincerely hope the technical aspects get some end-of-year love. And, it’s amazing how in just two films, Aster has an amazing way of burning scenes and moments in our minds forever. My oh my, I am still thinking about specific scenes just like I did in his debut. So yeah, I’m higher on it than you are. May help though if the next movie Aster puts out, maybe he co-writes along with someone else.
For me Midsommar was the worst kind of frustration. It had things that I absolutely loved (Pugh, Aster’s eye for captivating visuals, the entire first half). But man did that final act push me away. I found myself unable to find hardly any deeper meaning or even point to some of what he was putting on screen. Kinda drove me crazy! 😂
Great review! I seemed to like this a little more than you did, although I can’t say it’s a movie I would willingly watch again, you know? I felt like the movie was two separate movies, and I liked the first half significantly more. Too much shock gore for me tbh.
Thank you! The first half was sooo good which is one reason I was so bummed by the final act. I think I’m with you – not in a hurry to see it again.
I watched this last night and now looking to see what you thought of it. I didn’t see Hereditary. Also not usually brave enough to watch a horror movie, alone, at night. The movie first and foremost to me is sinister in all aspects. The cognitive dissonance between the idyllic setting and the happy people and the pretty flowers with the monstrous acts bordered on surrealism. The paranoid in me felt the two leads weren’t chosen randomly to be brought to the farm, and the others came along as fodder. The email the sister sent suggests maybe she had already made contact with the cult? I wonder how many of the practices shown are based on actual Nordic traditions that are taken to a terminal extreme by the cult? Using flowers, herbs, etc., and the unnatural acts and special effects of them really gave me the creeps! Everything about this movie left vivid impressions, and not good ones 😦
I felt the way you did for most of the movie. There was a sense of unease and dread practically from the very start. But I really disconnected during that last act. It came across to me as shock value and I felt like I could see the movie working hard to be excessive and horrifying. In the end it just wasn’t the payoff I was hoping for.
Agreed on the excess at the end. I can’t get that look on her face out of my mind either!
The scene that really got me (in a good way) was the ritual at the cliff. I still remember it in unnerving detail!
Yes that was a real trip! The bright rocks and how they climbed to the top and all the rest. I went out looking to see how much of that movie is based on actual traditions and found this article in Esquire:
Wow. Interesting. Thanks for sharing.