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Midsommar (2019)

Midsummar is just as good, if not better, than Hereditary. If director Ari Aster had the last name, of say, Roeg, people would be tossing around The M Word like a nervous tic in a stress factory. But since he is a new filmmaker working within the horror genre, the hipster critic class will (is) portray(ing) Midsommar as a good film that doesn’t quite live up to the promise of Hereditary. A perfectly fair assessment, I guess, if you can ignore the stench of anti-horror bias that pervades modern film criticism. [Stepping down from my high horse] So is Midsommar a masterpiece? Time will tell, but it certainly has all the hallmarks of one. Aster’s assured hand on the wheel is nothing short of stunning, giving us such a singular piece, a truly uninterrupted vision. The experience is so immersive, the pacing so deliberate, that it lulls you into a kind of hypnotic trance, its beauty providing an odd comfort in spite of the dread. So when the film takes its inevitable, horrific turn, the jarring sensation is as effective as anything you could hope for in a horror film.

The fact that Aster could put together such a well-conceived, fully formed film in one year immediately following his first film speaks not only to his intelligence as a writer and director, but his innate talents as a cinematic storyteller. There are certain filmmakers out there who just breathe and speak the language of cinema—the Scorseses and Spielbergs of the world—and Aster definitely fits into that mold. I’m not saying he’s on those directors’ level, only that he has a natural grasp on the artform, a quality that couldn’t be taught in 50 years of film school. And as with all other directors of note, Aster appears to have specific ideas and themes he carries from film to film. Just as in Hereditary, he takes a nosedive right into the misérable of grief. The film opens with Dani (Florence Pugh) frantically leaving a voicemail for her sleeping parents, searching for help after her sister sent a cryptic email signaling she may be about to hurt herself. After getting no answer, she phones her boyfriend, Christian (played by the poor man’s Chris Pratt, Jack Reynor). Christian is visibly annoyed by how needy Dani is, giving her the barest form of comfort, and then bemoaning to his friends that he really, really wants to break up with her.

Well, some bad stuff happens, and Christian gets stuck in a relationship he doesn’t want to be in. After all, what kind of jack ass would break up with his grieving girlfriend? This plot point actually reminded me of the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode where Vivica A. Fox might have cancer, and Larry tries to break up with her before the diagnosis, or otherwise he’d be locked into the relationship for months. The Winter of Our Discontent turns into summer, and Christian surprises Dani that he is going with his fellow grad student friends to Sweden to study the Midsommar festival, a pagan celebration centered around the summer solstice. In a rather shitty, passive aggressive way, Christian invites Dani to come, thinking she’d say no, but would be appreciative of the gesture. The joke’s on him as it turns out, because she accepts, and off they go. As usual, I don’t want to give away too much more of the plot. This is one of those experiences where it’s best to go in completely blind and just soak up the madness as it comes. Let’s just say they arrive in a small, isolated commune of pagans in the beautiful Swedish countryside, and hijinks ensue.

I’ve seen the term “folk horror” thrown around a lot in descriptions of this movie, usually in reference to films like The Wicker Man (1973). While I would concede that The Wicker Man is Midsommar’s closest cinematic cousin, I’m not quite sure what the hell “folk horror” is. Just seems like something some people made up to distinguish it from “regular” horror—you know, like the wonderfully stupid phrase, “elevated horror.” A better way to describe it is that of a Creeping Dread film, like Rosemary’s Baby, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Messiah of Evil, Sole Survivor, Kill List, and (cough, cough) Hereditary. As I’ve written in a previous post, a Creeping Dread film should have at least two, if not all of the following three elements: 1) A slow, “creeping” pace. All the films I listed above are barely horror movies for their first half. Most function basically as serious dramas, with many involving weighty ruminations on grief and loss. It’s not usually until the third act when the deep sense of dread that pervades the film transitions into outright horror. 2) A malevolent conspiracy against the main protagonist(s). The feeling of paranoia runs deep in the Creeping Dread Film—and it’s justified! While not always supernatural, the external threat on the characters typically materializes as a local community or cult. 3) An inescapable fate. Carnival of Souls and Sole Survivor are great examples of this. In these types of films, the horror comes from the knowledge that your death is unavoidable and you can only outrun it for so long. So add Midsommar to the list of Creeping Dread films, a top-tier one at that.

Oddly enough, Midsommar does have one element that no other Creeping Dread films have: humor. Lots of humor, actually. The film seems to be aware of how absurd it is—perhaps an attempt at a much larger thematic observation of the slavish, asinine adherence to tradition, religion, and rituals—and pokes fun at itself in ways that are not cynically meta or self-referential. Much of the humor derives itself from the outsider-looking-in perspective on this weird community, and none of it would work if the characters weren’t fully fleshed out and real. You have to spend a considerable amount of time with these people, so if the characters fail to be likeable, the movie fails. The cast of characters functions very similar to that of a great slasher cast. They are likeable yet stereotypical, stupid but relatable. You don’t want to see anything bad happen to them. Florence Pugh is the standout here. Though much of the conflict in the film is driven by her distant boyfriend, she too carries much of the blame for her situation. Even before The Event causing her grief, she is too consumed with herself and her problems (understandably, I should at least point out), she doesn’t even notice how much her relationship with Christen is on the rocks. After The Event, this self-absorption only gets worse, and her choosing to come along to Sweden is a very selfish act that can only make things worse.

But Pugh plays this role so delicately, so naturally, we get wrapped up enough in her grief as to be as blinded as she is. Just like Toni Collette’s character in Hereditary, her character arc is the process of grieving itself. Though, in this case, I would say the conclusion to her story is ten times more gratifying than that of the previous film. Reynor as Christian had me mixed. I couldn’t tell if the acting was subpar or if he was so good at playing a spineless nitwit that I actively hated him. To be fair, his character is usually trying to do the right thing when it comes to Dani—just in the most wrong-headed way possible. His modus operandi is doing anything to alleviate the hurt feelings in the moment, all but postponing the heartache and pain to a later date. Perhaps I saw a little bit of my shortcomings as a boyfriend/husband in him, making me want to punch him in the face even harder.

Alas, that’s probably just the effect of great storytelling. The narrative structure here is more simple than Hereditary, but Aster utilizes that open space to let the film breathe, to naturally let the characters get from A to B. So in that way, Midsommar succeeds more than his last film, that despite all its accolades, drew criticism for not sticking the landing. (I defend Hereditary’s ending to the death.) That is certainly not the case in this film. It ends right where it needs to. No fluff, no bullshit. And if I may: cathartic as fuck. With a running time of 2 hours 20 minutes, Midsommar—playing in multiplexes across the country—is going to piss off a lot of people. However, for those knowing what they’re getting into, the slower pacing and earned payoff will please anyone who is a fan of this sort of thing. Aster, with his bold, Kubrickian center compositions and rock-solid control of story, is now 2 for 2. Whatever he does next, I’ll be there opening night. And you should be, too.

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