2019, R, 140 min. Directed by Ari Aster. Starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Vilhelm Blomgren.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., July 5, 2019
The defining sound of Ari Aster’s work is the keening wail of grief. That’s how Midsommar, the follow-up to his surprise supernatural smash Hereditary, truly begins: With Dani (Pugh) balled up on her boyfriend, Christian (Reynor), shrieking after an unimaginable family tragedy. He’s her rock in this time, but one that’s really shifting sand. Before this nightmare, their relationship was crumbling, and that’s the underpinning that quickly falls apart under the uncanny stress of a highly misguided trip to Sweden.
Aster swaps occult for cult with his sophomore effort, as Dani and Christian, along with his fellow anthropology grad students, head to a remote Scandinavian village to observe their midsummer rituals. This has never ended well, but the pair – accompanied by soft-spoken former community member Pelle (Blomgren), serious academic Josh (Harper), and cliched horndog Mark (Poulter, many of whose lines are delivered off-screen like post-production sweetener gags in an animated comedy) – heads to the land of the midnight sun for an excursion into grisly folk horror.
The commune (or, as Pelle corrects his friends a little too quickly, the community) is a mishmash of rewritten beliefs and traditions, as Aster pulls together a smorgasbord of Wotanism, late medieval superstition, Amish Anabaptism, Mormonism, May Queens, Sun King mythology, fertility rites, and even spiritualism. The residents are all suitably eerie, uniformly blond and blue-eyed and wearing white robes that become blown out in the summer sun. The American interlopers, in their blues and browns and grays, always stand out, and their grisly fates – or worse, strange survival – are inevitable and executed with Aster’s already trademarked cold distance.
Yet there’s something incomplete, as if Aster – a remarkable stylist and formalist – gets so mired in the details that he loses sight of any bigger picture: It’s all trees, no forest. It’s fine to have red herrings or Chekhov’s gun, but when you have both and you signpost them so clearly, it can become a little tiresome. The sowing of seeds does bear fruit with the array of illustrations on the wooden walls of the community's huts; after all, they depict the nine-day ritual, so the American guests have no excuse for not seeing all this coming (for an especially deep dive, brush up on your runes, as the design team scatters meaningful symbols on stone, wood, horn, and cloth). At the same time, when there’s a bear in a cage and a character literally tells the audience not to look, it’s two hours of waiting for a bear to turn up.
Aster is superb at striking a mood and maintaining it for the full duration. Reunited with his Hereditary cinematographer, Pawel Pogorzelski, he pulls off a visual feast that is akin to true contemporary avant-garde cinema, like Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle. He balances this with some insightful commentary on a failing relationship. It’s easy to both sympathize and empathize with Dani, and Pugh gives a raw performance that gets to the heart of emotional collapse. However, don’t overlook Reynor as the other cat’s-paw in the cult’s plans. He’s a counterpart to Gabriel Byrne in Hereditary, a partner trapped in an impossible circumstance without the emotional tools to deal with what’s happening – but then, as both characters implicitly ask, who does?
Yet while Midsommar never bores or truly overstays its welcome, its languor wobbles into meandering tonal shifts, with unlikely intrusions of absurdist humor. There are also a few leaps of logic that are pivotal to the plot, but one depends on the characters having no sense of self-preservation and another (a suddenly erupting strand about academic theses) merely creates cardboard villainy. It’s another of those threads that unfurls a little too easily, especially since Aster could have done more to probe the roots of that illogicality, the rewiring of the brain that two hours of darkness a day commits.