Midsommar, as with Director Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary, is one of its respective year’s most hyped horrors. Coming off possibly the most overrated film of 2018, Aster’s second feature is a dramatic improvement though never nearly so good as that it emulates.
Following a shocking family tragedy, Dani (Florence Pugh) spontaneously follows her long-term boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his thesis-chewing chums Josh (The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) to the idyllic hills of Sweden and their other stalwart Pelle’s (Vilhelm Blomgren) childhood commune. Hiking to a picturesque summerscape at his urging bathed in flowers, sunlight and not complete without the requisitely bedecked wooden pole, the ever-curious troupe are here to witness a once in 90-year pagan Festival of which the outside world knows little.
By coincidence or design, Midsommar bears a striking resemblance to Alex Garland’s own 2018 hit Annihilation. Itself commencing with a family tragedy, in coming to terms with her grief it’s lead accompanies a group of foreigners venturing far into uncharted, picturesque, foreboding land. Encountering an apparently symbiotic relationship between those within and nature, both films notably deploy near identical imagery at times and feature fantastically symbolic treatises on the environment and belief in that higher.
Whereas Annihilation attempted to outline a not-so-casual link between that thematically discernible and colourfully rendered, fairly with clunky exposition and a painful roll credits moment, Midsommar regretfully lets us languish in the dark. Near sparingly throughout are there even remote explanations of the pagan lore so essential to our understanding as well as our emotional and intellectual investment herein. As if we are meant to buy into this simply for the imagery and practices being resplendent before us, the creators either presume a knowledge of this subject matter matching Josh’s own post-graduate obsession nay imparted, or, more relevant to the majority of viewers, have just taken it for granted that faux awareness of such traditions garnered from Midsommar’s precursors will deliver enough ah-hah moments. It doesn’t.
As a consequence Midsommar is derivative in no small part of films which seek to depict such communities and distractingly so, most notably The Wicker Man and of more recent fare The Witch. Both of those films however (and too even the unintentionally hilarious Nic Cage remake) sought to situate us in this world via some form of explanation of that with which we must contend. There was ample scope in Midsommar for non-expository backgrounders given the presence of so many self-touted academics, but no such luck.
Curiously, Midsommar even borrows some visuals and mainstays of Aster’s own Hereditary. Seeing such for the first time only this year past was shocking; seeing said for the second time in so many years, as with the reliance on that familiar from classic horror and filmic paganism, is not only less impacting but in being so blatantly recollective has the effect of taking you out of the movie.
Yet more distracting is the extent to which Midsommar furthers the tiredest tropes of horror bands. The Cabin in the Woods hilariously sent up the one-note shocker caricatures emblematic of horror fare, among them the stoner fool, the athlete/jock and of course the scholar. Aster’s figures don’t fit exactly into Whedon’s mocking template but they come pretty close.
On the matter of all the ‘outsiders’ being so educated, as soon as you start to think about the premise the more this wears thin. It’s not simply that a group of smart people would neglect the opportunity to confer, band together and extricate themselves from that which is fairly foreboding, but rather that no such group would more than reasonably find themselves in this given situation nor be sought for such a circumstance.
Sure, suspension of disbelief is more often than not essential to enjoying an otherwise good horror films but the better ones don’t ask this of us. Had this scenario sought to be that much more believable, these apparently wealthy, educated, British and American post-graduate students with likely more than a few friends wouldn’t have been our main characters.
To further that analogous to both The Wicker Man and The Witch, both notably managed to maintain suspense until the very end and questions as to which characters or sets of characters knew more than us or others, who wasn’t letting on and where that sinister lay. In this outing all becomes clear around the commencement of the third act (with about forty minutes left to go) when, due to, among other instances, a blatant action by one character to coax another, much of the conclusion emerges as evident fait accompli and it’s very apparent who stands where. This occurring in no small part due to the film’s 147-minute length, overrunning Midsommar’s welcome and hitherto-built tension, what we are left with is Aster’s imagery.
Much of the production design and visuals are gorgeous even if their like are ever-recurring. In part a consequence of much of the feature being shot in one central location, Aster largely settles on motifs and elemental symbolism which resonated even the first few dozen times. The drug-like haze and soon drug-induced haze as the crew gradually make their way from Stockholm down the highway into the woods are among Midsommar’s best visual flairs; the camera tilting on it’s head as we zoom along or otherwise capturing lushly colourful vistas in broad daylight.
Together proffering a reasonable interpretation that much more of this film is metaphorically-focused than the action might suggest, Aster also achieves the rare quality of rendering that most terrifying in broad daylight and beyond this brightness itself especially eerie. No doubt a work that will be pored over in depth, a very deliberate aside to Pelle’s own familial past among else should engender speculation that Midsommar, even absent the heavy drug use, plays fast and loose with time.
Best making use of the scenery in a shocking sequence taking place at a cliff, Aster lets the camera linger on that which transpires in a manner rarely restrained for horror fare, inviting surprise and shock not only for it’s grotesqueness but for the upending plaintive manner in which it is captured. This scene is however undermined by the simple, inescapable fact that someone, anyone would have informed the newcomers of what was going to occur; their apparently distracting reactions being beyond predictable.
Shrewdly laying the groundwork in parts by foreshadowing blatantly how that horrific will play out to the extent that one character, when pressed, even tells another their intentions and in a manner which causes us to question that we’ve just seen, Midsommar too manages to regularly one-up itself and that telegraphed with increasingly disquieting encounters. Baring the shocking truth so obviously that we’re disinclined to believe it nor connect those few dots is a classic magician’s trick and it works well here. As with Hereditary’s most redeeming quality, Midsommar hides it’s biggest reveals in plain sight, lending their consequence a satisfying air when uncovered and the more so for having been tipped with touches of misdirecting humour.
Too dispensing with a needless, hackneyed explanation of just why can’t anyone reach the outside world, the setting itself imparts an evident lack of ability to herald any far-flung cavalry. Having spent this summer past in rural Sweden, this author can attest to the lack of signal in stretches.
Florence Pugh is reliably very good and goes a long way to selling even that most outrageous. Comparably Reynor is no match for those around him, a drug-addled scene and it’s repercussions among previous and ensuing moments when he is front and centre failing to engage on a basic dramatic level when suspense was always called for; Midsommar being decidedly in the suspense-horror genre rather than simply conforming to the latter. Harper convinces throughout though Poulter is best of all, imbuing Mark’s apparently friendly encounters with the locals and requisite reactions with instinctive lightheartedness accompanied by a sinister foreboding; ensuring Mark takes things just seriously enough that we too remain uneasy, unsure and very nonplussed.
A mixed bag, Midsommar isn’t nearly so overrated as its creator’s precursor even if it seldom makes exceptional use of its ample time.
Midsommar is in cinemas now
Midsommar on Film Fight Club