‘Midsommar’ Lights Up The Horror Genre

by Jonah Desneux on July 7, 2019

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Solid Rock Fist Up] 

There is a horror renaissance happening right now and Ari Aster is doing everything he can to be the king. Only a year after his directorial debut with Hereditary, Aster strikes success again with the surreal epic Midsommar. Though not traditionally scary like other horror films, Midsommar is effective in the unnerving effects created through its images and stressful situations. Instead of banking on a jump scare to frighten audiences, Aster induces fear by the use of visually beautiful yet mentally disturbing images that leach into the audience’s brain.

The themes of Midsommar are directly related to the film’s plot and Aster’s personal experience. No, Aster didn’t go to a  Swedish commune ritual gone horribly horribly wrong, but it was his own breakup that inspired the film and dangers of being devoutly attached to something that is not good for you.

These ideas are set up in the long opening sequence where Dani (played by Florence Pugh) experiences a heinous event, and isn’t able to receive the needed support from her boyfriend Christian (played by Jack Reynor). There is little to no romantic chemistry between these two amazing actors. From the moment they are on screen together, their romance feels forced, creating an unsettling tension which is almost more brutal than the intensely graphic images that are to follow. This however isn’t a knock against Pugh and Reynor. Their dynamic together captures the authenticity of a watching a couple who are inherently not good for one another and whatever flame was once there has certainly diminished even if they pretend it hasn’t.

Instead of breaking up, Christian attempts to help Dani cope with her trauma by inviting her to a trip to Sweden with his group of friends. This trip is planned out by Pelle (Vihelm Blomgren), who is from a remote Swedish community that is celebrating the summer solstice and wants his new American friends to experience all that it has to offer. After an impressively edited plane-ride sequence to Sweden and a drug-trip session in the middle of a field, the group arrives to the place of a smiling sun that never sets. 

The stereotypes of Americans out of place in a foreign land plays brilliantly into the surprising amount of  humor in the film. There were so many times in this film that I wanted to slap the vape out of Will Poulter’s hand and tell him to stop being disrespectful. Though silly, this guttural reaction I had is due largely to how effective Aster is in setting up the narrative and the environment of the film. Like the characters, the audience is invited into this enchanting yet strange world, left to wonder if what is taking place is bizzare through our cultural lens or if something has actually crossed a humane line. The self-questioning of what is and isn’t okay no matter the culture or tradition, is an incredibly complex idea that the film evokes in its early stages. It wasn’t as fully developed throughout as I would have liked it to be, but the mental arguments it established demonstrates the purpose and engaging qualities of a film with a slow burn.

Florence Pugh gives an incredible performance as Dani. Many are going to unfairly compare her performance to Toni Collete’s last year in Hereditary because of the popularity it reached. The characters might both be emotionally unstable in their grief, but the differences in motives, desires, and acting styles should allow the conversation not to be “which actress did better” but instead “look how amazing these two women are.”

The character of Dani faces so much disorder in her life and mental state and Pugh’s performance displays how damning it can be for someone. Initially you are left wondering why Dani would choose to go to a creepy Swedish festival opposed to seeing  a therapist in her time of great need, but as the film progresses the subtleness of how important it is for her to cling onto anything for even a sliver of comfort is shown. Even if that thing is a dying relationship, or a bunch of Swedish people who communicate with gasping sounds instead of words. 

The ensemble of friends are hilarious to watch through their absurd American self-centered qualities. This group is lead by Jack Reynor who is normally so likable in previous roles but is blood-boiling aggravating as Christian. You feel for him as he constantly messes up but get beyond frustrated as he takes little to no steps in bettering himself. Christian’s behavior is essentially the character mold for the Americans in Midsommar, but the muddied personalities portrayed help them make them stand out alongside all the other spectacle featured.

Acting aside, the set pieces and color palette are the star of the film. The commune of Harga essentially becomes a character of it its own, always giving you something to look at, while giving off the eerie feeling that you are being watched back. The murals around the village are gorgeous but troubling. Everything about the set and how it looks is like candy to the viewers eyes. The fantastic cinematography to match, only adds to the impact to its cinematic wonders. There are so many mesmerizing shots that leave you wondering how they filmed it, which adds even more the mystery of the extraordinary land it takes place in. All of these qualities come together to be one of the most sensory pleasures in recent memory, when juxtaposed with disturbing content, making Midsommar a wonderland experience that makes you question the beauty in the world around you.

Midsommar is a slow burn full of many different paths of discovery. That being said, the payoff of the climax comes a bit too abruptly. This film is extravagant, but once you realize the endgame is setting in, the build for it didn’t seem like enough. Part of this comes from the sharing of screen time with themes. Along with the message of toxic relationships and how we continue to cling onto something we know isn’t, Aster goes back into the theme of his previous film in how to deal with loss and grief. This second theme though is much more developed in Hereditary and has a stronger punch overall. In Midsommar it played second fiddle and cluttered the depth of ideas that the film wanted to get across. 

Much of this could possibly have to due with the amount of cuts Aster had to make to the film. The original runtime was stated at being around three hours and forty minutes, until the studio made him shorten it. Once the secrets of the film became discovered, the mystery now is dreaming about what could have been left out. Maybe this solves the problem of the undeveloped themes and unnecessary length of the opening in relation to the film, or maybe it makes everything messier and the studio saved Aster from himself. Either way, if you have the stomach for graphic content and aren’t afraid to get a little weird, Midsommar is a trip you should experience and won’t soon forget.

Jonah Desneux

Jonah Desneux is a recent graduate from the University of Missouri with a BA in Film Studies. It’s baffling that someone who just spent four years writing film paper after film paper would immediately want to write some more, but hey, he must love it! Along with writing about film Jonah enjoys writing and performing sketch comedy in Columbia and Kansas City.

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