Only two films into what is destined to be a prolific career in genre filmmaking (he insists he wants out of that box, but why ruin a good thing?), director Ari Aster has already developed a signature style.
Much like his first feature, 2018’s horror hit “Hereditary,” “Midsommar” kicks off with an earth-shattering tragedy, ends in ritualistic chaos and loads the middle with horrific imagery and heart-wrenching relationship drama. Needless to say, spoilers ahead.
The film opens in the throes of a dying relationship. Dani, clearly worn out by repeated family struggles, tries desperately to derive comfort from her boyfriend, Christian. Unfortunately for her, Christian already has one foot out the door of their relationship and is trying to work up the nerve to end it for good. Then, all hell breaks loose. Dani’s sister kills herself, taking Dani’s parents with her.
While Christian is a coward, he’s not a full-on asshole, so he sticks with Dani through her darkest times. Eventually, it’s revealed that Christian and his buddies — all varieties of twenty-something douchebag — are planning a trip to Sweden to witness a Midsommar ritual that only occurs every 90 years. Dani is reluctantly invited along, and with nothing else to live for or do with herself, she agrees to go, inadvertently making an ugly situation much worse.
The film relies on many familiar tropes of the “foreign cult” subgenre. The four Americans are ignorant outsiders, unable to get past their own self-centeredness long enough to either respect the native Harga culture or sense the building danger that would send a reasonable person running for the beautiful grassy hills. Even though they’re accompanied by Pelle, their Swedish friend and member of the Harga “family,” the crew seems precariously out of place.
The crew does eventually sense something is off, but only after blatantly unsubtle dangers arise. Aster likes to shock and disturb and, much like in “Hereditary,” he successfully creates plenty of outrageous, gory moments. All of these nasty bits crescendo to a hellacious final act, battering viewers with an onslaught of horrors at the same breakneck pace as he wielded in his previous film.
While there’s nothing wrong with a director having a signature — it’s the entire crux of the auteur theory, after all — “Midsommar” feels like Aster is operating from a plot template rather than exhibiting a creative tic or tendency. Something is disappointing about a director with so much promise, so much creativity and so much darkness playing it so damn safe.
Granted, my hopes for the film were probably too high to have ever truly manifested. “Hereditary” was such a singularly shocking filmgoing experience that it’s unfair to expect its sensation to be replicated. Still, looking back on the most disturbing and traumatic moments of “Midsommar,” I consistently felt that Aster could have really gone for it — visually, viscerally or psychologically — but shied away instead.
The film currently sits at a bloated 140 minutes — still, the characters never feel realized. Worse, in some cases, they feel so one-dimensional and illogical that their impending deaths are not only predictable but welcome.
This may all sound damning, but there are strengths to acknowledge as well. Aster has a tremendous vision, the craziest, creepiest brain of any director working today, and a meticulous sense of visual detail. “Midsommar” is gorgeously shot in bright daylight with stunning floral color combined with spooky, dreamlike camera movements.
Every actor in the film gives a kickass performance, leaning hard into their particular brand of shitty, and finding humor in even the darkest of scenes. Will Poulter dives into his horndog role and has fully embraced being the living version of the bully Sid from “Toy Story.” Jack Reynor plays Christian as such a blubbering, weak pile of sludge that I couldn’t stand to look at him, which seems intentional. Florence Pugh owns the film with an expressive face capable of rapid-fire emotional shifts. I get major Maria Falconetti in “Passion of Joan of Arc” vibes from her perfect cherubic face. Indeed, the film works best when grappling with Dani’s perspective, giving way to some satisfyingly feminist revenge moments in the final act.
But despite being obsessed with character relationships (mother-son conflicts in “Hereditary” and boyfriend-girlfriend conflicts in “Midsommar”), Aster has a cold remove in his filmmaking that suggests he couldn’t care less about actual people or actual humanity. In the Q&A following the film, he was compared to Von Trier and Haneke in his distancing, Brechtian techniques. And while I am all for some artfully-crafted Scandinavian remove, no one has the patience to invest 2.5 hours in cardboard cutout characters.
Ultimately, Aster feels caught between two worlds. His highbrow cinephile sensibilities compete against his gross-out misanthropic weirdo vibes. Until he can choose a side to commit to, his work will continue to feel uneven and just not quite enough in either direction.