Starring: Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth), Jack Reynor (Sing Street), William Jackson Harper (The Good Place), Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter (Detroit)
Writer/Director: Ari Aster (Hereditary)
Runtime: 2 hours 27 minutes
Release Date: 3rd July (US, UK)
Horror is one of the easier genres to learn as a first-time filmmaker, but it’s also arguably the hardest to master. There’s a reason the genre has become so homogenous over the years, with hundreds released every year but only a select few standing the test of time. It takes a unique perspective and a vivid imagination to stand out amongst the pack, and writer/director Ari Aster is among the latest to be lauded as a horror auteur thanks to his debut feature Hereditary.
Now I’m going to say something that I think might get me mauled in most critic circles: I didn’t particularly like Hereditary. I think it’s a very well made film with some fantastic visuals and performances, but in terms of story and character it was derivative and underdeveloped; at its core, it’s just another possession movie. For a first-time director, these kinds of faults can be forgiven, and it’s hard to deny from a stylistic point-of-view that Aster hasn’t established himself a trademark aesthetic. For his ambitious follow-up Midsommar, one would hope that the director would mature and grow to rely less on tropes and references. Sadly, I fear all of the praise Aster received for Hereditary may have blinded him to his faults, as Midsommar proceeds to make every mistake its predecessor made on an even grander scale.
If you’ve seen any horror movie involving a vacation and/or a cult, the plot of Midsommar is not going to surprise you in the slightest. From the moment our protagonists arrive at the eerily pleasant commune, every plot beat is practically laid out for you, and it becomes less a game of figuring out what will happen and more when; given the film’s intentionally slow pacing, the answer is usually “as late as possible”. There’s certainly an intention in the way the film signals towards twists and makes blatant references to other movies, but not in a fashion that feels particularly profound or unique. The entire story essentially feels like one giant drawn-out joke, but you figured out the punchline hours ago and it’s not even very funny. There are admittedly a few strong out-of-nowhere disturbing moments, but they are few and far between when most of them are telegraphed from a mile away. Judging by the abundant number of abandoned plot threads and irrelevant lore thrown in, the entire production simply feels like the filmmakers had way too many ideas and didn’t know what to do with most of them.
Hereditary’s main saving grace was its awards-worthy leading performance by Toni Collette, and here rising star Florence Pugh delivers a similarly haunting portrayal of an anxiety-ridden woman on the brink of sanity even before she arrives in this perpetually sunlit nightmare. As Dani, Pugh does a fantastic job of mining every raw emotion out of her character, so it’s a shame that there’s actually very little on the page for her to work with. Outside of her aforementioned mental state and faltering relationship with boyfriend Christian (Reynor), there’s not much to Dani as a character and she has very little agency in the story; everything just sort of happens to her.
Jack Reynor does a fine job playing the boyfriend who knows it’s too awkward to break up right now, but his story outside his relationship with Pugh feels unnecessary and slapdash; it doesn’t even get properly resolved or amount to anything. Rounding out the main cast are Christian’s friends, who are all arch character types only made somewhat distinctive by the actors playing them. William Jackson Harper’s Josh is basically just a less neurotic version of Harper’s character on The Good Place, Vilhelm Blomgren is little more than a vessel for exposition dumps and obvious foreshadowing, whilst Will Poulter’s sex-obsessed Mark is so unlikable and so obviously dead meat that he feels like he walked out of an Eli Roth movie.
As much as Midsommar doesn’t satisfy on a story level, it is admittedly a gorgeous-looking movie. Much of that credit lies at the feet of cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, who paints every frame with a beautifully ornate palette; any shot from this movie would be the best shot in any other movie. The detail that’s gone into the production design is equally astounding, even if some of its attempts to combine creepy with quaint come off as too obvious. With that said, there are a lot of visual ideas blatantly copied from other movies; obscure ones, yes, but obvious to any hardcore cinephile out there. The editing, though torturously drawn-out at times, always knows exactly when to cut for maximum effect, with its effectiveness in the scene transitions being especially solid. The film’s score by The Haxan Cloak is also at the right level of disturbing, combining Swedish folk music with eerie strings to create the ideal creep factor.
Some are going to claim I simply didn’t get Midsommar. My retort: I did get it. I just didn’t like it. With both this and Hereditary, what Ari Aster is aspiring to is obvious and somewhat admirable. He’s essentially seeking to revitalise the aesthetics of arthouse horror films of the 1970s (specifically films like Suspiria, The Wicker Man and Don’t Look Now) but with a modern self-awareness. However, the results are so unfocused as to be rendered neither particularly scary nor clever, and what’s left is an experience that flits between being tedious and being unintentionally hilarious. To craft a film this elaborate and aesthetically stunning and yet feel so hollow, Aster has to be either a massive troll or incredibly conceited, and I’m not sure which I’d prefer to be the truth. All in all, Midsommar is less akin to the classic Wicker Man and more like the Nicolas Cage remake, and not just because both of them feature a bear costume.
FINAL VERDICT: 4/10