I came out of Ari Aster’s critically acclaimed Hereditary less than underwhelmed, more than frustrated. The shallow, tense artificiality of the horror film left a burningly rancid taste in my mouth I can still feel today, and though my first go at the film did leave doubts on my initial judgement, every time I get ready to take another crack at it, I lose entirely all motivation when remembering the slog I’d have to put myself through again. Aster’s follow-up film, Midsommar, makes Hereditary look like a masterpiece.
Midsommar follows Florence Pugh as Dani, a young American woman plagued by severe emotional distress after her immediate family is killed in a sudden murder-suicide. Shamefully, Dani finds little comfort from her callous boyfriend, Christian (Jack Raynor), who, after planning to break up with her for a long time, is guilted into staying with her in the wake of the tragic circumstances.
Not wanting to leave her alone in her fragile state, Christian invites Dani on a trip with him and his three friends to the pastoral countryside of Sweden, where a rare festival that only happens once very ninety years is about to take place. While the tourists are at first enchanted by the rustic folk feel of the isolated little village, its charms quickly fade away as the townspeople’s celebrations veer into deranged ritualistic practices with alarming new intentions.
If there’s one thing I can respect about Midsommar, it’s Aster’s complete stylistic 180 from Hereditary. The polar opposite of the shadowy, sinisterly secretive suburbia of Hereditary, Midsommar is flooded with light for a vast majority of its runtime, using stark whites and swaths of bright, flowery colors to adorn the beautiful folk European art and architecture. The inspired idea of setting the story in a town where the sun doesn’t set gives the film an interesting, very different sort of terror, and for what it’s worth, the visuals are seldom anything less than striking and bewitching, especially when vibing next to Lucian Johnston’s experientially atmospheric, albeit forgettable score. But…
Everything else is nails on a chalkboard. In a vain (every meaning of the word) attempt at getting an authentic artsy feel, the stunning production design is framed within droning cinematography that consistently feels cheap and lazy, relying too much on unmotivated long takes and slow, drawling pans that fail to actually elicit genuine feeling or emotion. These visual tools can work really well when employed correctly with vision and purpose, but in this case, they feel phoned in as lame ways to draw up artificial dread and tension. The pacing is slow for the sake of being slow for the sake of being frightful, but it never, ever, ever works until the sudden scene invoking bewilderingly graphic gore pops up.
Really, Aster relies heavily on extremes to make up for his gratingly meandering style—indulgence and shock value are the name of the game. Naked old women (that’s twice in a row, whatever that may mean to the director), exploitatively explicit sex and violence, and many more boundary-pushing moments are meant to disquiet, but in reality are just eye-rolling or laughable, which my screening had plenty of.
The same carries over to the performances. Florence Pugh is directed to have the loudest, most aggressive panic attacks and emotional break downs in order to compensate for her role’s otherwise lack of scripted depth or character. She gives it her all, and the rest of the cast put up their best recreations of already familiar horror character cut-outs, but there’s little to any of them beyond what their dialogue conveys. Jack Raynor’s Christian probably has the most going on as a selfish, though conflicted boyfriend who relatably can’t seem to figure out the right thing to do in his situation, but you’re never given the chance to peak inside his head and see the ethos driving these internal troubles aside from lame, yet overly tame hints coming from the writing and directing. That’s not to mention the awful, awkwardly faux-verité dialogue the director is now 2-0 for.
In all the cinematic pompousness going around, there are kernels of interesting thematic material, but they’re all drowned out by their interpretive inaccessibility. A film can be challenging to analyze, but there should be enough present cohesion and circulation coursing through its content for one to be able to line up dots and satisfactorily make connections, the great David Lynch’s filmography being the prime example. Rather than a living, breathing piece of art, Aster’s films have been more like an ouroboros, overly overt works that devour their own substance as the director sticks his head up his own ass. Hard.
Ari Aster’s Midsommar is a challenging film to probe, but also a challenging film to reciprocate with. Though there’s likely some good content to nibble up within the piece, Aster’s sophomore screenplay and directing wall off any reward with an insurmountably poor artistic vision.