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