OnScreen Review: “Midsommar”

midsommar-trailer-15mar19-12.jpg
  • Noah Golden, Film Critic

Ari Aster’s wildly assured debut film “Heredity” was all dark, claustrophobic rooms, explosive family drama and existential dread. But what made it so terrifying wasn’t the moments of explicit violence or that pesky demon Paimon, it was the truly human emotion at its core. It is a film about the way grief can possess and infect entire generations of a family tree.

Now comes his follow-up, which although stylistically different, feels spiritually and emotionally tethered with “Hereditary.” It’s brighter and funnier than its predecessor, more graphically gory yet more realistic, but “Midsommar” is another film steeped in trauma. Only this time, it’s not a nuclear family but one lonely woman with a huge emotional gaping wound to deal with.

In a somber prologue, we meet graduate student Dani (Florence Pugh, terrifically raw and expressive), whose life is turned upside down by a shocking act that has left her orphaned and alone in the world. Her emotionally-distant boyfriend Christian (Jack Raynor) isn’t much comfort, especially because he was already looking for an exit strategy before tragedy hit. She doesn’t seem to have any friends of her own either, only hanging out with a group of guys who all study anthropology at the same university. When the guys decide to visit Sweden for six weeks, one part vacation and one part thesis research, Dani reluctantly agrees to go too. A change of location might even help quell the persistent panic attacks and bouts of uncontrollable crying. As this is the first fifteen minutes of a horror movie, we know better.

The trip is led by Swedish-born Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who wants to show his friends – academically-minded Josh (William Jackson Harper, Chidi on “The Good Place”), dudebro Mark (Will Poulter), Christian and Dani – the small, rural commune he grew up on. When we get to Sweden, the film shifts gears from dimly-lit interiors to verdant, sprawling fields and perpetual sunlight. It’s like Dorothy stepping out into technicolor. But things are not quite right the moment we enter the Hårga village. The members all seem welcoming but weirdly vacant and no one will really explain what happens at the all-important, nine day long Midsommar celebration. But maybe that’s just the psychedelic drugs, taken immediately upon entering the commune, talking.

I won’t spoil what happens at Midsommar. It may involve ancient, bloody sacrifices, a drug-induced dance ritual, pies that would make Miss Lovett blush and a mating ceremony that is equal parts hilarious and skin-scrawling.

In fact, that’s true for the entirety of “Midsommar,” a film that is far funnier than I expected. Aster is a master filmmaker and exhibits expert control over every moment, including knowing exactly when to ratchet up the tension and when to open the release valve just a little with a joke. This is a deeply strange film and I suspect some might ultimately find the endeavor too ridiculous and overblown. I disagree. The comedy here is needed and doesn’t dilute the emotional truths at the film’s core. Things feel silly until they aren’t anymore and it was fun listening to the packed audience at my theater go from disrespectfully chatty to laughing to pin-drop silence.

The film is far from subtle, but that feels wholly by design. Aster likes to write his emotions in permanent caps lock. It’s Grand Guignol. It’s pain and suffering on an operatic scale. He takes everything to the extreme. “Midsommar” doesn’t shy away from moments of surprisingly graphic violence and nudity. As in “Hereditary,” Aster shows in detailed close-up what most directors would leave to the audience’s imagination. In that narrative, it felt more like a shock tactic while here it serves a higher thematic purpose. Blood and guts, penises and vaginas – they are as normal a part of the life cycle as the crops the Hårga plant. It’s only our cultural conditioning that makes them feel taboo.

“Midsommar” is definitely scary – I found myself holding my breath numerous times – and supremely disturbing. Aster, with help from his excellent cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, pervades the film with dread and suspense, no easy feat given the idyllic, sun-drenched location. Yet despite the bucolic, flowery imagery everything feels incredibly claustrophobic. Each frame is beautiful but almost too well-constructed and choreographed, leaving the viewer disoriented and uneasy. The Swedish dialogue is rarely captioned. The visual rhythm Aster creates with editor Lucian Johnston is key to the unsettling nature “Midsommar” creates, as is The Haxan Cloak’s atmospheric score. It’s a noisy film too, each scene underscored by a woman keening, a baby crying, the tribal members singing. Terrified screams and orgasmic moans. 

Beyond being a truly entertaining, cinematic thrill ride, I’d guess that “Midsommar” will act as a Rorschach test for viewers. A little like “Us,” this is a film with many possible and valid translations. Is it a narrative about the perils of staying in a crumbling relationship (Aster did admit to writing it post-breakup)? Is it a play on white privilege and the way Dumb Americans view anything outside of their cultural norm as either something to study or, quite literally, piss on? Is there a message about the collision between ancient, inbred beliefs and modern society? (In fact, if one can find a weak spot in “Midsommar” it’s that the film doesn’t lean into the cultural or racial aspects of the story enough. What exactly is the significance of having scholar Josh be the only non-white character in the film or having the male lead be named Christian? The academic rivalry between them also got a bit lost in the fray.)

Probably all of those are true in some form. But for me, what spoke the loudest was the way trauma changes your worldview. You leave the hospital where your parent lays dying and can’t comprehend how there are couples eating in restaurants as if the world isn’t shattering. You pass people mowing their lawn on the way to your grandmother’s funeral and wonder how on earth they can go on with life. You lay in bed crying and depressed, unable to grasp the person making jokes on the TV screen as if the humor were a language you forgot how to speak. This is the world Dani lives in. In that world, everything feels wrong and unsettling and violent. It’s not unlike Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” another film where beauty and violence, depression and liberation are explored in agonizing detail.

There are two scenes of Dani crying in “Midsommar.” In the first, she is with Christian but emotionally alone. Her unbridled sobs falling on deaf ears. In the second, she’s surrounded by a gaggle of white-clad Hårga who cry and flail along with her. They speak the world’s most universal language together. It’s the closest “Midsommar” comes to catharsis and the best moment of an imperfect but pretty brilliant film.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars