The most difficult thing about any sophomore effort -- especially one that is following a critically and commercially successful debut like Hereditary -- is that it often cements what your entire career looks like. We've seen this a thousand times over, perhaps best exemplified by M. Night Shyamalan (who is now relegated to sticking twists at the end of every film because of the commercial success that The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable garnered). As such, the opening moments of Midsommar had me on the edge of my seat.
The set up is rather simple: our protagonist Dani has received a horrifying message from her sister, who is bi-polar. She tries to call her parents to tell them about it, but they don't pick up. She then calls her boyfriend Christian, asking him to come over and hang out as she struggles with the fear that something horrible has happened to her sister. This entire sequence is filmed in a long close-up, one Aster used with great efficacy in Hereditary, and the entire time I was expecting the camera to cut away to a wide shot where he would reveal something terrifying lingering in the corner of the frame. He's not the kind of director who would resort to a jump-scare, but he enjoys toying with expectations, littering the frame with horror imagery without revealing his hand until the last second.
Yet, to my surprise, this scene was just a phone call: a tense one, that manages to deliver a ton of character depth and pathos thanks to Florence Pugh's nuanced performance. This change signals the tonal differences between these films: while Hereditary was always a family drama at its core, it wore its horror on its sleeve and never tried to hide that there was something supernatural going on in the house. I would argue that Midsommar is less of a horror film than Hereditary, or at least the former film is a different kind of horror -- one that is more influenced by The Wicker Man and Black Narcisssus.
In many ways, Midsommar is extremely ambitious. It asks a lot of its audience, and its horror elements never overwhelm the film, even toward the final act. Rather, Aster allows the horror to flow through the main characters, through Dani and Christian's embattled relationship, through the tensions that come with displacement, confusion, and genuinely terrifying circumstances. In essence, this is a film that is exploring not folk horror, but also regret and sorrow, anger and frustration.
There is a key moment in Midsommar (minor spoilers ahead) where Dani has drank some tea infused with shrooms. Her trip is going just fine, that is until she overhears the word "family" spoken by one of Christian's friends. That one word is enough to turn her trip into something horrifying and disorienting, where everyone is laughing at her. She hides in an outhouse, and for a brief moment we see the horrifying image of her sister, a hose duct taped to her mouth. It's a genuinely eerie image (one that a lesser horror film would have introduced with an ear-splitting jump scare, and maybe even a jump-cut close-up of her face), but its presence is not just to scare the viewer -- it informs Dani's character. It gives us a lens into her grief. It confirms that this is not just a horror movie, but also an exploration of grief.
Don't get me wrong, there are some genuinely terrifying moments in the film, including some liberal usages of blood and gore. Yet the final moments of the film brings everything full circle in a haunting twist that will certainly divide audiences (if my theater was anything to go off).
Perhaps the best way to describe Midsommar is "risky". It's not a typical sophomore film. While we can always feel Aster's creative touch on the screen, whether through the deliberate editing, the haunting soundscape, or the jarring visuals, but he also experimented a lot with this film. Some of that experimentation yields great and impactful results, while others lend to the films bloated runtime (one of the main issues the film has). Still, it takes bravery to put your career on the line with a film as ambitious, expansive, and challenging as this one.
Not everyone will love Midsommar. As I was leaving the theater, I heard a few people contend "that wasn't a horror film." In some ways, they are right. This is not a jump-scare filled, overbearing horror effort. Some may call this elevated horror (a misused term that has risen with the advent of films like Hereditary and The Witch), but I think the need to label this as a specific genre is missing the point. Aster enjoys using horror as a lens through which to view humans, to see what we do when presented with specific things like grief and the paranormal. In this way, he is using horror as a tool, not necessarily wrapping himself in the blanket of genre filmmaking. Midsommar is a horror film insofar as it is a film that uses horror to tell its story. The story, and the character of Dani, are truly what is front and center though. It's her story, and viewers should be wary not to lose sight of that.
written and directed by ARI ASTER
Rated R || 147 MIN ||Released on 3 July 2019