REVIEW: Midsommar

Posted by Matthew Thornton on Thursday, July 4, 2019

Director: Ari Aster
Writers: Ari Aster
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper
Runtime: 140 mins
MPAA Rating: R

      WARNING: If you don’t like horror/unsettling movies, you will not enjoy this movie. If you only like straightforward slashers or spookhouse horror movies, you will also not like this movie.

      Last summer, Ari Aster’s first feature-length film Hereditary shocked audiences who were drawn in by its fairly misleading marketing and got much more than standard horror fare. It is one of only two recent movies that I can recall multiple audience members walking out not to return (the other movie was Martin Scorsese’s Silence but I think people walked out of that for different reasons). I actually was introduced to Aster’s work a few years before Hereditary when I came across his short film The Strange Thing About the Johnsons on YouTube (and recommended my friend watch it too); let me just say that I could make a strong argument that it is a more frightening experience than Hereditary (my friend may or may not be scarred for life), but I digress. Though I had plenty of issues with Hereditary, Aster’s visual flair, attention to detail, and restraint while building tension made me excited for his future work. Thus, my interest was piqued as soon as I saw the first trailer for the Midsommar (which was once again marketed like a typical horror film but this time with more sunshine). I purposefully avoided the subsequent trailers and any plot discussions as going into Hereditary completely blind heightened the impact of all the shocking moments. Coming out of Midsommar, I can’t say I was too astonished this time around, but there are a lot of elements within it to digest.

      I want to reveal as little as possible about the plot so I will limit myself to providing a brief overview of the major characters and the skeleton of the story. Dani (Florence Pugh), a college student dealing with intense family-related emotional anguish to the point of tears, is the main character of this tale. To deal with her pain, she attempts to lean on her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), an anthropology PhD student lacking direction in his research, for emotional support. As it turns out, he does not really want to be in the relationship and is really bad at communicating, not gaslighting his girlfriend to the point that she blames herself for every insensitive action he commits, and just empathy in general. Tragedy keeps the relationship together as Christian does not want to coldly abandon the grieving Dani. He even goes so far as to unenthusiastically invite her to go with him and his friends Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), Josh (William Jackson Harper), and Mark (Will Poulter) on a trip to Sweden. Pelle, a native Swede, has kindly arranged for the group of friends to come and meet his family and stay in his village, a rural Amish-like community far removed from modern civilization, to experience their one-of-a-kind midsummer celebration consisting of colorful pageantry and ebullient festivities deeply rooted in old traditions. In contrast to Christian, Josh is a highly-motivated PhD student in anthropology who sees this trip to Sweden as a vital research opportunity to learn about unique cultural traditions. Meanwhile, Mark is simply the crass funny-man in the group who provides frequent comic relief. While Josh and Mark are the most vocal about their disdain for Christian and Dani’s relationship and do not appreciate Christian inviting her on their trip, Pelle seems just a little bit too happy about Dani coming along. The grand journey north starts from there and I’ll leave it at that…

      Despite being advertised as taking place out in the sunshine, the film opens with a suburban house at night as a telephone rings, each ring in sync with a jump cut that zooms ever closer to the darkened abode. In fact, nearly all of the scenes in the first act as the characters are established are dark, drab, and urbanized, sharply contrasting the majority of the film which takes place in the bright, colorful, and rustic setting of the Swedish commune isolated in nature. Structurally, one might think that the first act is thematically disconnected from the latter two acts upon a single viewing, but that is far from true as Aster consistently calls back to it and ultimately constructs thought-provoking character arcs running from beginning to end. The ominous sense of foreboding created in the beginning is extremely reminiscent of Hereditary, and the rest of Midsommar is similarly a slow burn with horrific bits popping up here and there eventually culminating in a berserk final act. However, while Hereditary’s approach is dark and mysterious, leaving little clues that the viewer has to piece together and probably will only fully grasp upon further dissection, Midsommar puts everything right out in the open. People say what they are about to do and they do it. Artwork depicting sequences of events that are about to play out is placed center frame and lingered on. While I was never as shocked as I was during certain points watching Hereditary, much of what I expected to happen is significantly weirder than I anticipated. That being said, there are still a number of little bits of foreshadowing and allusions that you will realize only after contemplating the film. A rewatch or two might be necessary to catch some of the finer nuances as there are a few points I still do not really understand.

      Visually, Ari Aster confirms he is an artist with the camera. The visuals from start to finish are thoroughly captivating. There are some downright gorgeous shots implementing a variety of distinctive camera pans, sweeping overhead views, and precise focus shifts. In this film, he is very keen on long takes. On multiple occasions, he sets up numerous actors to have complex interactions within large areas for extended amounts of time, often moving the camera to focus on different subsections of the setting. For example, the camera at one point is focused on characters in the midground before two groups of characters split off in opposite directions, one group towards the background and the other group towards the foreground; all the characters are still kept in frame before focus shifts to a foreground object that is then slowly trucked across. Such a simple scene could have been done with probably three or four cuts, but putting in the overhead work during initial filming to get the long take just right makes the scene that much more intriguing to follow and effectively builds anticipation. Due to the significant usage of longer takes with lots of actors interacting, most scenes are very lively, and the Swedish setting feels like a real and active community. The way Aster slowly yet deliberately moves the camera around his sets sometimes feels a bit like a virtual tour of a historical site for lack of a better description. He even borrows from his Hereditary bag of tricks by using truck shots that go between walls to track characters between rooms and by putting objects that resemble figures just out-of-focus in the background to intensify a sense of unease. The production design and art direction are top-notch. All of the costumes and props are intricately crafted and contribute to the visual flair of each scene. Every little piece of the set design has a coherent style to it from the building architectures to the paintings and tapestries to even the way the tables are arranged for feasts; connecting symbology and artwork between scenes is a big reason the story stays fascinating while having a slower pace. For a film that will unsettle most of the audience, it is simply pleasant to look at for most of its runtime. On top of the visuals, I really enjoyed the sound design and the music choices used throughout the film; in addition to the eerie soundtrack by The Haxan Cloak’s Bobby Krlic, there is an abundance of traditional Swedish folk flutes, strings, and singing, and it coalesces nicely. The editing is restrained for the most part, letting crafty visuals keep the audience engaged in almost every scene. Consequently, I did not even notice the lengthy runtime as the pacing feels pretty fluid; if you are not tuned into Aster’s style of slowly building suspense, one might find this movie a little bit slow. There are not really any unearned jump scares in this movie (a huge pet peeve of mine) as Aster puts in the time to build suspense as the audience anticipates something terrifying and more often than not does not get gratification; he earns the audience’s anxiety, and I appreciate that. Overall, the cinematography is remarkable and easily the best part of the experience.

      This film is technically well-made but not without some minor flaws. There are some CG plants and flowers that look distractingly poor in certain scenes and the pulsating after-effects used to indicate when characters were tripping out on psychedelics looked pretty cheap; fortunately, the film does not rely too heavily on visual effects, and I assume this movie was limited by a low budget similar to Hereditary (I would estimate in the ballpark of $10 million). In at least two different scenes, there is a series of crossfaded shots to show an extended passage of time while a character performs a specific action, and each time it looked really silly like the type of editing I would expect in a Lifetime movie. Despite all the previous praise given, I do have a few issues with Aster’s direction. For one, he lingers on some shots that I think he believes are more shocking than they actually are. There is an unnecessary amount of gore in one scene for shock value; it is not that the scene is not effectively grisly, but what happens is so predictable to the point that I was tired of the lingering and wanted the plot to progress. There are also a few shots where the focus intentionally and unnecessarily shifts back and forth between different characters, and it is just annoying rather than serving a significant purpose; that being said, he has more than a few awesome shots that shift focus within frame. These few technical issues are just slight annoyances and do not bring down my rating all that much.

      What really prevents me from liking this film more is the acting. Note that I did not say characters. While most movies typically have skilled actors doing their best to elevate a mediocre or poor script, I think this movie has the opposite problem in that the characters are very well-written, but the actors only give so-so performances. For example, during an early scene, a distraught Dani is on the phone with Christian and the whole shot is a long take closeup of her face. It is extremely obvious that Aster has very specifically instructed Florence Pugh what facial movements he wants her to make, but all of those movements feel extremely deliberate and unnatural which kept me from being fully engrossed in the emotion of the scene. That being said, I think that Pugh gives by far the best performance. It is as if most of the actors do not really understand the characters they are playing most of the time, and their performances feel thoroughly hollow as a result. There is one scene featuring a less-than-friendly exchange between Christian and Josh that is really awkward and feels like it could have been plucked out of a sitcom. Maybe the actors were told to give their performances as is, but I had trouble buying it (drugs are a significant part of the story so who knows). I usually really like Will Poulter and he is pretty funny when he is actually acting on the screen. For whatever reason, a large portion of his dialogue occurs either when his back is to the camera or his character is offscreen; my best guess is that Aster wanted to play up the fact that his character is an idiot and thus used ADR to awkwardly insert some funny lines where they could in post-production. Consequently, he feels a bit removed from the rest of the characters for much of the movie, and it is distracting. However, this movie reaches a pivotal turning point about halfway through where everyone has an appropriate response to an extreme event in the moment, but none of their subsequent actions are remotely rational following what they have witnessed. I can understand to a degree the motivation for each of the characters behaving irrationally from how the characters are written on paper, but none of the actors really sell it. I would have to spoil a great portion of the movie to further explain what I mean, but hopefully what I am saying makes some sense. Let me just say that none of the performances in this film are remotely as excellent as Toni Collette is in Hereditary. The central character arc that Aster constructs is actually fascinating, but the actors on screen simply do not give compelling performances.

      All in all, this film is a bizarre spiral of events and easily eats through its over-two-hour runtime. Though not too outright scary, it is more than unsettling, even with moments of levity sprinkled throughout the movie. I give Aster credit as this film’s visuals will stick with me, and there are some truly exceptional moments. I appreciate Midsommar for its ambition but wish it could have been brought to fruition with fewer flaws. If you enjoy arthouse horror and can stand extreme weirdness and challenging imagery, you will at the very least find this film interesting…you might really enjoy it, I don’t know! As for everyone else who ignored my warning at the top, you will probably want to leave the theater if you choose to see it. Either way it will be a memorable experience.

RATING: ★★★½

Update 8/31/2019
      I recently caught a showing of the director’s cut of the film which adds about a half-hour to the theatrical release’s runtime, and I wanted to share my thoughts on whether or not this extended cut affects my opinion of the film in any significant way. There are only a handful of entirely new scenes, but several previously included scenes are noticeably longer. I am not entirely certain what my issue was with Pugh’s performance in the one scene I mention above, but she gives a skillful and convincing performance throughout the story. Additionally, I particularly enjoyed Vilhelm Blomgren’s performance and picked up some of the nuances in his actions having foresight into his ulterior motive for bringing the group of friends to the community. I still disliked Jack Reynor’s and William Jackson Harper’s performances; they still feel like sitcom actors thrown into a group of people attempting to act like real human beings. It still felt to me like they were unsure about how to represent their characters in a realistic and natural manner and, consequently, feel superficial. I do appreciate that the thesis controversy gets a bit more development and does not come out of left field like it does in the theatrical cut. I still take issue with the scene placement of the argument between Christian and Josh as it still awkwardly arises after the ritualistic suicide, the ättestupa, has occurred. The audience is supposed to be in shock (at least that is what I thought with the excruciating amount of time that is spent lingering on the suicide scene in slow motion), and jumping to this new seemingly insignificant issue is just not a clean progression of plot points. Will Poulter still feels almost entirely disconnected from everyone else, and there is even more ADR’ed lines given to him to play up his role as The Fool. Additionally, another death ritual is shown the night after the ättestupa where a decorative tree is thrown into the river as a sacrifice. Subsequently, a child adorned as a decorative tree and holding a large rock is about to be thrown into the river as the next sacrificial offering; fortunately, the child sacrifice is just a theatrical production and does not actually occur. Ritualistic drowning in this manner is actually how the commune kills Connie which is not obvious in the theatrical cut. Another nighttime scene follows where an emotional Dani is pleading with Christian that they have to leave, leading to a fight and further deterioration of their relationship; I believe this scene would have been fitting immediately after the ättestupa but am glad it is included to show that at least Dani is apprehensive after having viewed such an extreme event. Essentially, all of the additions in this cut flesh out some details but do not really change much for me overall. The first and third acts of this movie are still strong, and I really like the arc of catharsis that Aster writes for Dani. However, I had a lot more issues with the pacing of the second act as it is way too slow and way too focused on building tension when each shocking moment is painfully predictable. Furthermore, this movie is suprisingly funny…to its own detriment. This movie is almost an even split of comedy and drama which prevents the horror from ever being too disturbing outside of the visuals; the movie mostly just comes off as really weird but not very scary. Finally, I reevaluated the special effects, and, though they are by no means high-budget, they do add dynamic subtleties to scenes where characters are tripping out of their minds versus when they are sober. All that being said, no the director’s cut does not affect my rating. If you want a little more explanation and development to some bits and pieces of Midsommar, catch it if you have a chance. However, I think for most people it will make an already long movie longer.

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