Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) was a promising debut feature, with suggestive atmosphere, compelling performances, and (for a horror film) sensitive observations about the nature of grief. But on the basis of Aster’s second feature, Midsommar, I’m inclined to say that promise is all the writer-director has to offer. Midsommar recycles the memorable qualities of Hereditary, but to no meaningful end. Aster simply employs them to generate a sense of gravitas, which he dashes as soon as Midsommar transforms into a full-blown horror movie. The film operates as an extended bait-and-switch game, as Aster establishes the veneer of an art movie only to draw viewers into what is essentially exploitation fare.
That veneer, moreover, is pretty thin. As a director Aster has only a few tricks up his sleeve, the most prominent being a slow Steadicam shot meant to instill an air of dread into the scene no matter what’s happening. This device, familiar from numerous recent American horror films (not just Hereditary), has been losing its power for years, yet Aster employs it in nearly every scene of Midsommar. Beyond suggesting a failure of imagination, the monotonous aesthetic works against its own intentions, calling attention to its own hollow artistry instead of any suspense inherent in the drama. The drama comes across as hollow too, as Aster simply bangs away on the grief theme he established in Hereditary; this suggests it’s the only way he knows how to access his characters’ feelings.
Aster defines the heroine of Midsommar, Dani (Florence Pugh), by her grief fairly early on, and this quickly becomes the only means by which the audience can understand her. Dani is a psychology student at an unspecified university. When the movie opens, she’s shown to be in frequent contact with her mentally ill sister, who often sends her text messages that threaten she’s about to have a nervous breakdown. Dani has trouble handling the stressful situation, and she relies heavily on her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), for emotional support. Christian is tired of being used as a crutch, but he can’t bring himself to break up with Dani—understandably, he doesn’t want to be perceived as a bad guy. Aster establishes the couple’s relationship naturally, portraying both sides sympathetically, though he reduces Dani’s sister (who never appears onscreen) to something of a bogeyman, a narrative catalyst for the troubled romance. The weakness of this characterization becomes more pronounced when the sister murders her parents, then commits suicide, intensifying Dani’s mental instability nearly to the point of psychosis.
Aster then jumps ahead several months to summer. Christian, who’s working toward a PhD in anthropology and who lives with three other anthropology students, does little more than get high and complain about how unhappy he is with Dani, who remains traumatized by the sordid events of the past winter. One of Christian’s roommates, a Swede named Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), invites Christian and their two other friends on a trip to the commune in northern Sweden where he grew up. Pelle wants his friends to experience an ancient midsummer festival that his commune celebrates; one of the roommates, Josh (William Jackson Harper), especially likes the idea because he wants to write his thesis on European folk rituals. Christian intends to go without telling Dani about it, but when she finds out about his plan, she guilt-trips him into inviting her along. This narrative development (which lasts so long as to feel like a short film in itself) allows Aster to demonstrate his understanding of troubled romantic relationships and how individuals can exploit their grief to draw favors out of others; it also has little to do with what follows.
The remainder of Midsommar plays like a high-toned version of Eli Roth’s xenophobic gorefests Hostel (2005) and The Green Inferno (2013), following the American tourists (and a couple of British students they meet along the way) as they come to realize that Pelle’s seemingly peaceful commune is really a death- obsessed cult. Aster prolongs this revelation for as long as he can, drawing out the story with observations of folk rituals and more moody camerawork. Some of his set pieces are effective, in particular the sequence that occurs when the Americans first arrive at the commune and take psychedelic mushrooms. Aster employs subtle special effects to convey the mushrooms’ disorienting effects on Dani, who freaks out and becomes suspicious of everyone around her. This sequence also has little to do with what follows, apart from raising the belabored level of dread that Aster has already conjured.
One of the more interesting things about Midsommar is that, because it takes place in northern Sweden during the summer, the horror generally occurs under bright skies. This strategy inverts the standard horror-movie trope of having scary things happen in the dark and, as a result, makes one regard sunlight with suspicion, something I’ve rarely encountered in the genre. Still, I didn’t find the film particularly unsettling. For all the cleverness with which Aster and company realize the commune (Henrik Svensson’s production design is especially praiseworthy), the setting never really induces terror—it’s simply too pretty. Moreover, Aster renders the communards and their rituals too alien for them to get under one’s skin. Once Midsommar introduces the idea that something strange is afoot at the commune, the film idles until the unusual behavior turns grotesque and violent. Aster introduces a subplot about Christian and Josh’s academic rivalry, but this doesn’t do anything but maintain the flimsy illusion that the filmmaker is interested in his characters beyond their victimhood. When Dani’s grief, which had motored the drama of the film’s first half, stops being a factor in the narrative, it becomes clear where Aster’s interests lie. A dressed-up piece of schlock, Midsommar might have been compelling in its pretense if Aster weren’t such a one-note storyteller. v