2019 | rated R | starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Michael Jackson Harper, Will Poulter | written & directed by Ari Aster | 2 hrs 27 mins |
It was barely a year ago when writer/director Ari Aster dropped a gothic horror atomic bomb on theaters with Hereditary. My favorite film of 2018, Hereditary went on to become A24’s biggest hit to date, earned Toni Collette several critics association awards and gave Aster a lot of capital to spend. He follows it up with Midsommar, another beautiful nightmare about grief, a relationship falling apart and a Sweedish pagan cult. Not content to make a traditional horror film, Aster is still dabbling around the edges with subgenres here making a “folk” horror film and set almost entirely in the sunlight. It’s a direct challenge to the throne held by Robin Hardy’s 1973 genre-defining classic The Wicker Man.
If you haven’t seen The Wicker Man (or the recent Netflix wacky folk horror Apostle) and the only association you have with the genre is Niel LaBute’s appalling 2006 Wicker Man remake, Midsommar might just blow your mind. Aster’s talent is mighty and again showcased in fully glory. His ability to craft epic memory burning images of every day horror and a steady atmosphere of dread is undisputed. Midsommar opens will a masterful sequence, my favorite in the film, a suicide with a dose of Aster’s Hereditary extremeness, that sends our heroine Dani (Florence Pugh) into a state of grief and PTSD for the rest of the film. It’s the worst possible headspace to go off with her boyfriend Christian (Chris Pratt look-alike Jack Reynor) and his college bros (Will Poulter and The Good Place’s Michael Jackson Harper) on a Sweedish retreat into the woods.
Aster is as good with the characters as the images, effortlessly writing the group of travelers with funny throw away lines and distinct modern personalities with Poulter as the frat boy, Harper as the academic who seeks to write his thesis on the socially isolated pagen cult’s midsommer festival and Christian as the disconnected boyfriend whose instincts with Dani’s state of mind waffle from well-meaning to self-indulgent and callous. The story is powered on politically correct xenophobic twist (also used by Hostel) where out heroes overlook a lot of bizarre behavior and almost comically obvious threats under the guise of experiencing a new and different culture. You’ll have long figured where this movie is going before it gets there, not because it’s predictable but because Aster has literally given us the clues on paintings placed in the background of almost every scene. It’s a curious tactic, disposing of the element of surprise to create dread, hinting at the horror to come and letting our imaginations fill in the gruesome details until he’s ready to drop the other show.
The film moves at a deliberate glacial pace that makes Hereditary look like a music video and it’s long at 2 1/2 hours, none of which is a problem but for that it’s also pretty indulgent, laboring over drug-addled dinner scenes. The length rarely feels too slow because Aster keeps teasing us with horrors to come and it is always entertaining spending time with our heroes. For all the talk of Aster’s ability to create dread, he also effortlessly writes our college-aged leads with realistic and fun dialog. We get a lot of funny throw away lines from Poulter as the film’s bro right out of a college sex comedy and a lot of the plot moves on Harper as the anthropology major intending to write his thesis on this isolated community. That shoe eventually comes down – first one and then another – the first in a payoff so unflinchingly gruesome that it sent 3 people in our theater fleeing for the exits. It’s great, but Aster isn’t here for shocks and he doesn’t hide in the dark with jump scares, keeping the film focused on how all of this is playing against Dani’s already raw nerves.
Aster is an auteur for sure, but my big issue with Midsommar is how strictly it sticks to the basic structure – and payoff – of The Wicker Man. Is it a better film? Very likely, particularly with the depth Aster has conceived these characters and visuals, and Florence Pugh’s performance, but at the end of the day the film finally pays off all of it’s teasing with something that we’ve seen before. I came away from Hereditary absolutely thrilled, I came away from this movie with deja vu. I’d ask if the folk horror genre can go anywhere else, but I think Aster is deliberately challenging Hardy’s film on it’s own turf and one-uping it. That’s a battle that time will settle. Midsommar is totally entertaining for those willing to go along with Aster’s indulgences, but it’s ultimately not as horrific and original as I wanted. Still, it will very likely be the year’s best horror film.