By Karen Gordon
There’s good news and bad news for people waiting to see what writer/director Ari Aster would do for his second film.
Aster broke out big time last year with his debut feature, the upscale horror movie Hereditary. It was a meticulously plotted, literate, tense, deeply creepy occult movie, with a superb performance at the center by Toni Collette. Fans of the genre (myself among them) semi-starved for this kind of material, received it with delight and waited to see what he’d do next.
His second film Midsommar confirms that Aster is, indeed the real thing: a director with a great eye, and a genuine ability to ratchet up tension. That’s the good news.
Midsommar is reminiscent of pagan village mysteries like The Wicker Man or Children of the Corn. That, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. But it poses a challenge for him: ie: from very early in the film, we have a sense where it’s all going.
With no real narrative surprises then, the movie becomes all about the characters and the journey. Aster’s playing out of the journey is problematic. And that’s the bad news.
Midsommar begins with the lead character in a panic. Dani, played by Florence Pugh, has received ominous texts from her sister, suggesting suicide and worse at the family home. For support, Dani is reaching out, via texts, to her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), who is hanging out with his three closest male friends.
This isn’t the first time she’s been overwrought, and his friends think he should dump her. But, either out of love, laziness or cowardice, he can’t or won’t.
There appears to be an escape on the horizon for him, though. The quiet, easygoing Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) has invited the friends to Sweden with him for the Midsommar ritual at the commune where he was raised. Josh (William Jackson Harper), is going to use the cultural event as part of his thesis. Christian, who is less decisive, is thinking about doing something similar. And Mark (Will Poulter) is along for the ride, the drugs and the girls.
None of them are happy when they find out, last minute, that Christian has invited Dani.
The commune is in an isolated rural spot in Sweden, hours from civilization. It’s rustic to a fault. There isn’t a television, computer or modern convenience anywhere. It is also very communal. They along with two other outsiders, guests of Pelle’s “brother,” all sleep with the rest of the community in a giant open, barnlike building in single beds neatly laid out around the walls of the building - men, women, children and a constantly crying baby.
But things go from strange to truly disturbing after the first communal meal. The five outsiders witness a ritual that, under most circumstances, would send any normal human packing their bags and running for the hills. It is, of course, part of the horror genre that people go to into places where we ‘normally’ wouldn’t, or stay when they really, REALLY should go. But in this case, the ritual is so disturbing that the idea that this group of people could relax and go back to normal polite conversation is a stretch.
But they do. And that’s, arguably where Midsommar starts to go wrong.
For a while, the movie moves at a languid pace, with a surprising amount of humour as these American college kids, observe this foreign, insular community performing arcane pagan rituals with great seriousness.
Christian, though is acting odd in myriad ways. He’s been trying to distance himself emotionally from Dani, looking hard for distraction in a place with little to do. He attempts to bogart Josh’s thesis, which causes some discord. And then, while they try to work out that problem, more odd/ bad things start to happen, and the pace picks up as the rituals, and the movie, reach a crescendo.
That trajectory, of slow moving into frantic and horrifying, is how Aster worked his story in Hereditary. But there, every moment felt well used and characters were making choices and decisions that were understandable, given that they were dealing with horrors that were mostly unseen.
In Midsommar, between what we know will happen, and the way the characters make their choices, the story gets harder and harder to believe, and the movie, loses steam. Aster makes well crafted, brainy movies that have the adrenaline rush of horror. He gets us there by slowly building tension, and then showing us the gory results of what has gone on.
The gore was there in Hereditary in ways that made a certain amount of sense. But in Midsommar it feels gratuitous.
And in fact, the entire opening scene, of Dani’s family problems, doesn’t ever really tie in to the rest of the story in a meaningful way. It seems to exist to give Aster a chance to make sure the film’s opening scenes allow for some arty and disturbing “callback” death images.
The story drags and wobbles, but still, Aster’s strengths as a director show themselves. The movie looks beautiful. He has a knack for atmosphere and tension. The noises of cutlery clicking against china plates at a communal meal have never sounded so ominous.
As well, Aster has a terrific eye for casting, and in some way is an actor’s director. The performances are all solid, especially Reynor and Isabelle Grill as Maja. Together, pull off one of the strangest sex scenes in recent memory.
The jewel here is Florence Pugh as Dani (TV’s The Little Drummer Girl, Lady Macbeth, Fighting With My Family). She’s simply one of the best actresses on film right now across a range of material, from period pieces to comedy, to this role as the deeply grieving woman holding back her own darkness. In trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, a range of emotions cross her face. It’s a glittering and shattering performance.
Midsommar isn’t a terrific film, and maybe it’s fair to say that, after the success of Hereditary, this one is a bit self-indulgent. Even still, there’s a lot of craft with this director, and hopefully more to look forward to in the years to come.
Midsommar. Written and directed by Ari Aster. Starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor and Will Poulter. Opens wide, Wednesday, July 3.