MIDSOMMAR is a folk horror fever dream [review]

Commentary, Film and Television

Ari Aster’s hotly-anticipated follow-up to Hereditary is a hallucinatory fever dream that fuses coming-of-age drama with vintage occult horror.

Aster’s terrifying 2018 debut, which starred Toni Collette as a bereaved mother tormented by evil spirits, took familiar horror tropes and made them feel fresh. Culminating in a disturbing occult ritual orchestrated by a coven of witches, Hereditary had touches of folk horror; Midsommar cranks that influence up to eleven, following a group of students who accompany a friend to his isolated commune in the mountains of Sweden.

The students are Christian, Mark, and Josh; a late addition to the trip is Christian’s girlfriend Dani, still reeling from the murder-suicide deaths of her parents and sister. Their arrival coincides with the commune’s once-per-century festival, which seems to include several days of maypole dances, awkward meals, something involving a caged bear, and some light human sacrifice. (An early revelation is that community elders are honoured in an elaborate ceremony that ends with them throwing themselves from the cliffs). The commune members are oddly open about their activities, providing the outsiders with intimate access; it’s almost as if they know the students won’t be leaving.

Despite their radically different settings, Midsommar isn’t actually a huge departure from Hereditary. The films share a propensity for pagan rituals, disorienting camera angles, oddly proportioned architecture, and – perhaps most importantly – a female character dealing with unimaginable tragedy that seems to have struck independent of supernatural involvement. In a way, Dani is the polar opposite of Collette’s character in Hereditary; where Annie let her grief consume her entire family, Dani is so reluctant to burden anyone else that she represses her grief to a dangerous extent.

Early in the film, she brushes off her sister’s cry for help because Christian (out partying with his buddies) convinces her it’s an attention ploy (spoiler alert: it’s not). Deep in mourning, she drags herself to parties (and subsequently Sweden) for his sake. Once they pull into the commune, she reluctantly takes hallucinogens (pretty much guaranteed to give her a bad trip) because she doesn’t want to spoil his fun. And when another guest goes missing, Dani doesn’t press the issue; after all, Christian’s having important academic discussions and doesn’t need to be bothered.

Portrayed by British actress Florence Pugh, Dani is more of a fleshed-out character than a lot of cinematic scream queens (or female characters, period). Aster’s script imbues Dani with nervous tics, self-esteem issues, and a desperate desire to please that seems to be a direct result of her traumatic past. In an early scene, she timidly confronts her boyfriend about his thoughtlessness, barely letting him get a word in as she talks herself into forgiving him; by the end of the argument, she’s almost congratulating him for abandoning her in her time of need.

She deserves much better than Christian, an insensitive underachiever who treats her legitimate traumas as a drag on his carefree life. He invites her on his guys’s trip solely out of obligation, never expecting her to accept, and proceeds to forget her birthday and pursue an ill-fated coupling with a fertile pagan girl.

His friends are no better. Will Poulter’s Mark is almost cartoonish in his assholery, dismissing Dani’s needs as “abuse” and unrepentantly urinating on a sacred tree. William Jackson Harper’s Josh is a tunnel-vision academic who knows more than he lets on, but not enough to be as afraid as he should be. And their guide Pelle (played by Vilhelm Blomgren) is a sensitive artist who may have knowingly led his American friends to their gruesome deaths. (In comparison to the others, he’s downright likeable). Aster spends a lot of screen-time probing the interpersonal dynamics of these characters, who are believable and often infuriating.

Midsommar is far less commercial than Hereditary (which is saying something, since that film was an gruelling endurance exercise that mixed hardcore horror with devastating family drama). The film moves with an almost Kubrickian slowness, lingering lovingly over serene but sinister Swedish valleys and the ancient rites of the Hårga.

Aster’s cinematography is stunning as ever; not since The Shining has a vast open space looked so claustrophobic. The landscape’s few human touches are subtly unsettling: cabins that look like they were built to collapse on themselves; elaborate tapestries depicting obscene love spells; a bright yellow, perfectly triangular temple situated just off-centre on the screen.

Aster’s lavish attention to the Hårga rites is occasionally tedious, mimicking the feeling of observing a long-winded cultural ceremony as an outsider. (Fittingly, the solemnity of the proceedings is often interrupted by bozo outbursts from the students). Truth be told, the movie could have used an edit: Aster’s rituals (especially towards the end) are fascinating and have a frightening manic quality, but his most pivotal sequences are somewhat dimmed by the inclusion of too many similar scenes.

Revolving around a group of largely passive observers, Midsommar lacks the forward momentum of Hereditary (or even its obvious influence The Wicker Man, which had a mystery to push its protagonist deeper into his island cult), not to mention the element of surprise. If you’re familiar with folk horror, nothing in Midsommar will really shock you. Chalk that up to the limitations of the genre: there’s no hiding the fact that the apparently-idyllic commune is actually sinister, and that one at least of our “heroes” will end up an unwilling sacrifice; the question is just who and how.

The who in this film is deeply satisfying; the how is beautifully brutal, granting us the kind of mutilation-as-art imagery we haven’t seen since Hannibal got cancelled.

Visually, Midsommar borrows quite a bit from Hannibal, with splashes of Annihilation and gore worthy of a Rob Zombie movie. It’s also obviously part of a long tradition of “folk horror” movies like The Wicker Man, The Ritual, and The VVitch.

The film’s obvious fidelity to its genre pleases me immensely. Hereditary, when it came out, was among the crop of recent movies lauded as “art-house” or “elevated” horror, with critics speculating that its spooky trappings were a bait-and-switch to “trick” unsophisticated audiences into watching a serious family drama.

While Midsommar is also largely concerned with relationship dynamics (podcaster Elric Kane called it “one of the most accurate depictions of a slow break up I’ve ever seen”), it’s equally concerned with hallucinations and human sacrifice; it’s “art-house” for sure, but it goes a long way in dispelling the notion that Aster has no real commitment to the horror genre.

Beautifully shot, slow-burning, and profoundly weird, Midsommar won’t be for everyone, but it establishes Aster as a visionary director of horror. I can’t wait to see where he goes next.

Title: Midsommar

Director: Ari Aster

Screenwriter: Ari Aster

Year: 2019

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