I was a fan of 2017’s Hereditary, unexpectedly so, considering I actually mocked the trailer when I first saw it. I think I decided to watch it only because I’d heard it was worth watching, and while I saw a movie full of flaws – some pretty bad ones too – I was hugely impressed by the ending, which I now consider one of the greatest in horror. This time around, Ari Aster’s second movie Midsommar is almost a reverse of that, where the ending threatened to undo what I liked about the movie.
I’ve read a couple of review headlines about this movie that suggest the writers are comparing Midsommar directly to the seminal horror movie The Wicker Man, and maybe you’ve seen that too. That’s mostly ignorant, once you get past the very basic premise of innocents ensnared within a cult, as both movies have very little similarity outside of that. The plot that drives both are very different too, and in terms of the endings, again while similar, are still vastly different in terms of the eventual fate of the protagonist. The Wicker Man is by far and away a much better movie than Midsommar – but that doesn’t make Midsommar a bad movie in comparison.
The beginning of Midsommar grabbed me from the get go. If there’s one thing about horror that grabs me, it’s character. It doesn’t matter to me how much blood you splash around, or what kind of monsters you can put together in Mudbox, if I’m not invested in the characters and what fate they’re plummeting toward, you’ve not done your job. Fortunately, for the hundreds of shit horror movies being released annually (see Netflix’s menu), there are still a handful of moviemakers that care about this essential element. On the strength of his first two movies I feel Aster gets why horror is as viable a genre for creating strong, character-driven drama as any other.
Strong character work is on display on both sides of the camera in the first act, though there’s a little clumsiness in how Aster seems unsure of who the protagonist is. Sometimes you think it’s Dani (a terrific Florence Pugh), who suffers a deep personal tragedy, and sometimes you think it’s her kinda-sorta boyfriend Christian, played with douchy aplomb byJack Reynor. Jack has a set of close male friends who are planning a trip to Sweden in the summer after being invited to visit the commune where one of them, Pelle, was raised. The trip will also allow Josh to study the commune in-depth as part of his Master’s Thesis. Feeling sorry/guilty/confused about his relationship with Dani, Christian invites her along.
That’s the setup. Once they arrive in Sweden and drive to Pelle’s commune in the middle of the country, the decision to set the story almost entirely in the daylight (it’s Sweden, in summer) paid off for me. Horror isn’t necessarily bound to darkness for me – indeed, once of the greatest anthologies of short horror stories – Demons by Daylight, by Ramsey Campbell – is all about revealing that some of the most crushing and debilitating horror can happen between breakfast and dinner. It all depends on the location, and living among a blissful commune, isolated from society, is a perfect setting.
Especially when the film’s first act of horror arrives. And here is where I appreciate Aster’s talent in the genre. I’m already a fan of his languid style of direction. It results in movies being too long, but in the peaks and valleys of making movies in this particular genre, you need to be unsettled by the eye, not just the story. It’s not enough for characters to react, you need a sense of why they’re on the edge already, and the environment within horror is as much – or should be – a character as the humans who walk around in it. Everything seemed off-kilter about this commune as soon as the Americans – and two random British tourists who only exist as plot devices – arrive, but it’s when that first horrendous moment arrives that you’ve now crossed over … into the twilight zone. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the many moments in act 2 when I thought, hold on, a reasonable person wouldn’t stay on. I understand why they do, but the aftermath of this scene needed some kind of actual strong debate over whether or not to leave. Instead, their reactions are muted down into something that resembles a lack of real interest in the Americans. despite what they’ve seen. In short, this is when the movie switches from being character-driven to plot-driven, and I felt the shift pretty hard. There are too many moments when the characters react in ways that service the plot, and not themselves – like the person who descends those basement stairs into darkness. It’s okay to do that if it’s literally your only choice, but it’s bad writing for dumb behaviour to exist in horror only to move from plot point to plot point. The saving grace for me is the despite this, the story retained a need for me to see it through. I liked the depth of the characters for the most part, and I wanted to know what this commune was all about. There are a couple of mysteries in there too, like the large A-frame building at the edge of the commune that nobody is allowed into, and the extremely random shot of a caged bear. In order for horror to be successful, you also need a strong element of weirdness – true weirdness, the kind that confuses you and makes you do a double take and ask, “What the fuck is this shit!” Midsommar accomplished that for me, and kept me in the story, along with one compelling scene somewhere towards the end of act 2 featuring Josh and Mark (an underused Will Poulter).
Act 3 is not so great, I have to say. It’s overlong and is notable to me for a couple of utterly ridiculous moments. I’ve been in enough horror movies where some audience members laugh at scenes I’ve found to be great character moments and wondered what compels people to do that. In Midsommar, the laughing started and while my eyes initially rolled, I quickly found myself smiling with them – it wasn’t because these scenes were meant to be funny (if you think Midsommar is a horror-comedy – as I’ve actually seen it described! – you need your head looked at), it’s because Aster made bad choices in the plot and the filming. One, in particular, is so ludicrously filmed it would have been a Benny Hill scene with the right music. Just very, very bad. And in the end, all it did to me was reduce the power of the final scene – though having said that, it might have seemed a little flat anyway. By means of getting there, there are visuals which resemble the ending of Hereditary way too much for me to be okay with that decision, another thing that served to weaken the entire third act.
It’s a shame, because up until Act 3, I was prepared to give the movie a 3.5, but instead, I have to drop it by half a point. What I did like about Act 3 is that two things came out of it for my viewing. First, I liked the eventual fate of Dani, who suffers from crippling anxiety throughout the movie, but undergoes a truly transformative arc. Second is that the bad choices made by Aster, while in my mind they remain bad because of how audiences have reacted to their tone, but they went a large way to me in determining the true nature of the cult as I walked out of the theater, and that’s maybe backed up by one key moment during the actual ending, set in that mysterious A-frame building: the commune members were all completely, and utterly insane.
© Andrew Hope, 2019
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