Midsommar Review (Film, 2019)
Content Warning: Midsommar features graphic images of suicide and focuses heavily on clinical depression.
Horror can be a challenging genre to write about. I’ve spent my career as a writer trying to elevate the level of discourse surrounding an often neglected genre. I’m not the only critic working this way, and there are wonderful writers all around the web and in print who have taken this style further than I ever could. Yet, as someone known for writing about horror in a thoughtful way, the challenge comes when a cultural touchstone film rubs me the wrong way.
Ari Aster has now crafted one of my least favorite and one of my most favorite horror films in recent memory. Hereditary was incredibly difficult to write about because I do not take joy in tearing down what other people so clearly love. I stand by my review, a piece that took much longer to write than my usual critical work. My issues with the film go far deeper than a narrative obsession with gratuitous violence against children, though that was the best angle I had to create a relatable explanation for my distaste with the film.
Ironically, Midsommar uses many of the same narrative techniques and recurring (obsessive) images of violence and I was not bothered in the least. The victims are considerably older than the ones in Hereditary and the violence is far better justified by the narrative. There’s immaturity in some elements of execution, but it’s more in line with similar early career directors rather than a child playing out creative ways of destroying their toys over and over in the backyard. Aster is exploring horror through experimental film tropes and that creates a unique vision in the modern cinematic landscape.
Midsommar is, dare I say, a sensitive slow-burn horror film. The pain, grief, and terror a young woman faces in her daily life after a traumatic loss are addressed in a symbolic way through an utterly horrifying series of events she cannot even pretend to have control over. Once again, Aster leaves me in a position of suggestion so as to not ruining major plot points that have lingering effects on the entire story even in the opening sequence. I will do my best not to spoil what is intentionally not revealed in the marketing materials. Just know I am quite serious about the content warning and almost left the theater during the opening stretch of the film.
In the wake of tragedy, Dani (Florence Pugh in her best role yet) joins her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his classmates on a research trip to a remote village in Sweden. It is Midsommar, a festival held once every 90 years during the summer solstice, and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), a native of the village, has invited everyone to join him in the secretive celebration. Cut off from society and plied with psychedelic teas and supplements, Dani and her friends are thrust into a beautiful and strange series of rituals designed to provide for the future prosperity of the village and its inhabitants.
The best way I can describe Midsommar is an art-house spin on The Wicker Man. The 1973 Wicker Man film is, in itself, largely experimental in form and structure, and Midsommar takes a similar concept and uses it for a character exploration film akin to The Discrete Charms of the Bourgeoisie or even Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Midsommar is undoubtedly a horror film, though the horror is largely psychological in style and reactive to shocking incidents of violence onscreen.
There are some recurring visual tricks that do become distracting as the film goes on. An early trip with psychedelic tea and edibles established a beautiful image of the body literally connecting to nature. This is then shorthanded to the dark center of flowers or the iris of the eye pulsing larger and smaller when a character is not in full control of their mind or body. What is meant to signify the unreliability of a character’s mental state turns into a distraction from the emotion in the final act. It’s on the wrong side of the uncanny valley and looks less convincing the more you see it used.
Similarly, Aster plays with the focus and depth of field to varying effect. My eyes already struggle with depth perception and light sensitivity, so these scenes, for me, were a blurry, incomprehensible mess. My eyes could not find what was left in focus much of the time, which may have been nothing more than a flower bud or a singular rune on the side of a wall. The opening sequence of the film was also incredibly dark until the first image of grotesque violence, presented using the same gag that ends the first act of Hereditary. I found it more effective from a narrative standpoint here, though the beats were less effective for being too familiar to his prior film.
Florence Pugh, already one of my favorite actors for her masterful work in Lady MacBeth, turns in the best performance of her career so far as Dani. Dani does not get to say much considering the 2.5 hour runtime of Midsommar. Do not expect a wonderful showy monologue like Toni Colette got in Hereditary; Pugh has to rely on reaction to tell her story. Her Dani communicates more with a quivering lip and walking away from her friends than you could ever expect. Aster’s direction relies heavily on physicality and ritual to define shades of nuance between characters that slowly grow until everyone is acting in their own separate world. Pugh benefits from Midsommar’s obsession with closeups in a way few other actors could.
Like the dioramas that define the real story of Hereditary, the ancient runes, architecture, embroidery, and wall art on display during the festival define the true story of Midsommar. I imagine the brief flashes of similar art we see in Dani’s apartment might spell out the entire plot before we even join the festivities, though that is pure speculation as these images are wisely kept far away from the camera lens.
Aster has an eye for visual storytelling that has already matured in wonderful ways since Hereditary. Are there surprises in the film? Yes. Are they unpredictable, out of place, or unearned? No. We see the world develop in subtle ways around us that inform what will come. Frankly, some of the dialogue in the film betrays the foreshadowing of the production design in disappointing ways more so than realizing that tapestry you saw in passing will be important 80 minutes later.
Midsommar is an upsetting film, but one that stays well within the territory of the Western horror canon and expectations. There are no recurring images or scenes that exist just to shock and numb the audience, though the content of the film is highly disturbing. I’ve seen enough films in this cult/ritual subgenre to maybe not be as disturbed by the content as some others who haven’t obsessively studied Lair of the White Worm or Santa Sangre. While I had a wonderful experience seeing this in theaters, I imagine Midsommar is a film that many will feel better watching from the comfort of their homes where they can walk away if necessary and not miss anything.
Midsommar is currently playing in theaters.