“It struggles to connect its cavalcade of disturbing sights and thematic arcs into a fully cohesive package.”
by Ken Bakely
Last year, Ari Aster made waves with Hereditary, a chilling examination of grief and family, framed in two hours of slow-building dread that, in the last twenty minutes, exploded into a wild blaze of supernatural horror and surreally disturbing sights. Now he has made Midsommar, another movie which looks at loss and personal relationships through the lens of mounting discomfort that occasionally erupts. It’s just as competently made, and like his prior movie, features a truly astonishing lead performance, but to continue this comparison much further would be unfair to the new title. This is a two-and-a-half hour excursion that meanders; chock-full of observations that are impressively presented, but introduce little in the way of realizing said ideas to meaningful concepts. It struggles to connect its cavalcade of disturbing sights and thematic arcs into a fully cohesive package. At its best moments, it works in some dynamic setpieces and haunting moments which absolutely linger in the mind, even when you’d rather they wouldn’t. But at its weakest, it suggests without following through, invoking without leading us to any conclusions, or even giving us enough to interpret on our own.
Yet Florence Pugh can shine through even the most clumsy of scripting mishaps here, delivering yet another great turn in a remarkable emergent career. Her ability to move between states of movement and register within the same emotional beat is a critical component in a movie where things tend to turn on a dime. She plays Dani, a woman who, in the first scene of the film, is struck by a staggering tragedy that brings her whole life crashing down, when her sister’s suicide, through carbon monoxide poisoning, also kills both of her parents. Dani’s aloof boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) was planning to break up with her at the time, but decides against it in the wake of her loss. However, he becomes only more distant in the year that follows, and their relationship, never strong to begin with, deteriorates further. They hope for respite in an impromptu working vacation that Christian and a few of his fellow PhD students have planned whilst researching their theses, in which they will travel to a closed-off commune in Sweden and witness an elaborate summer festival. Of course, things are not all they seem. The rituals quickly grow disturbing and deadly, yet most of the group is unwilling to leave, hoping to find something valuable for their studies. This, obviously, turns out to be a truly terrible decision.
The exact nature of how truly terrible a decision this turns out to be is part of the whirlwind that Aster leads us on through the second and third acts of Midsommar, all while switching back and forth between more internalized references to Dani’s deep grief (often manifest in seeing visions of her parents and sister). Aster’s movement between an attempt to evaluate his characters on an intimate level, while building up the intensity of the death-centered rituals of the festival around them, leads to a weakening of both: mulling over mourning and assembling a slew of upsetting imagery and behavior, but in ways that are more fragmented than united in creating the metaphors that he clearly seeks to communicate. What’s worse is that it peaks when a grandiose finale is shaped into a message about personal autonomy that feels slapdash and tacked-on, and once it’s over, makes very little internal sense. It’s clear that Aster is capable of handling mood with a masterful ability, and he’s capable of working with a talented people to make formally impressive movies, but when it comes to incorporating themes and allegories, this film slides into a pattern of grandiose gestures with little behind them. Midsommar tells us surface-level messages about the difficulties of grief and being in a relationship with someone who doesn’t value you anymore. These aren’t revelatory ideas, and the movie leans too hard on hoping that wrapping them in horror packaging will cover up scripting weaknesses.
We’re left with the individual pieces of the work, which are quite impressive on their own. Aside from Aster’s tight tonal skills and Pugh’s phenomenal acting, the supporting cast is roundly commendable, and Pawel Pogorzelski’s sharp cinematography makes use of extremes in light and scope to sear key images and landscapes into our mind. But the glue of the script – what’s supposed to take all of the finer points of the plot and connect them together – disappoints. The underlying conceptual hum of the film should co-exist with the chills of the viewing experience; instead, it underwhelms with its simplistic nature. Midsommar is a project of intense ambition that often succeeds from moment to moment, but doesn’t tell us anything new or engaging. We’re better to live in a world where artists like Aster can experiment with well-budgeted projects so freely, but there’s a vague quality to the movie, when taken as a whole, which surely wasn’t intended, considering all that’s constructed and revealed throughout its rolling sprawl.