Midsommar Review: A hypnotic and skin-crawling watch that shows Aster as a horror visionary
When writer/director Ari Aster had a tremendous breakout last year with his horrifying tale of family grief, Hereditary, one of the big questions plenty of people were asking was when we would see his next film. Well, we actually didn’t have to wait too long as he quickly collaborated with A24 to release another terrifying story in the form of Midsommar. Just from looking at the trailers, it was easy to that Midsommar had a polar opposite look to Aster’s debut. The cinematography was much brighter, the color palette had a sweet and summery look to it, and it focused on a group of Americans exploring a strange Swedish commune rather than a family dealing with death. However, while things look bright and cheery, there’s clearly something more sinister that’s about to unfold, and boy is it sinister.
Aster shows that he is truly the new visionary for the horror genre and he crafts a film full of great performances that showcase his talents as a director, great moments of visual storytelling, and unnerving moments that audiences won’t ever forget, which is quite impressive considering we’ve seen movies like Midsommar before. The film’s premise definitely follows a familiar formula: people go to investigate a strange cult, they see that the cult’s activities are quite strange, and some terrible things start to happen. Watching the film, it’s easy to compare it The Wicker Man, not the Nicolas Cage one, and its clear that the film was a strong inspiration for some of visuals in Midsommar. However, Aster breaks the familiar formula by once again having the film’s lead, Dani (Florence Pugh), deal with grief that stems from a family tragedy and her deteriorating relationship with her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor).
Pugh and Reynor put in incredible performances, especially Pugh, that showcase how talented they really are and how committed they are. The film’s opening excellently showcases the grief and guilt Dani struggles with throughout the film and is easily one of the most haunting and suspenseful sequences in the film. The opening also shows the issues that Christian and Dani have in their relationship as Christian doesn’t want to leave Dani, due to her family issues, and Dani doesn’t want him to leave and feel alone, but also doesn’t want to use him to make herself feel better. Pugh and Reynor do an excellent job showing these struggles and you actually grow feelings for these two characters and end up caring about where their relationship will lie when things become even more complicated. This is easily some of the best leading performance of their careers and possibly even the year and there’re moments that really show how committed they are to making even the oddest scenes the creepiest in the film.
Honestly, everyone is excellent in the film and there’re some standout moments that show why Aster is a masterful director. Will Poulter is an excellent comedic relief as Mark, William Jackson Harper is great as Josh as I easily connected to his character’s interest in this Swedish commune, and Vilhelm Blomgren and the rest of the commune members have a perfect mix of being comforting and spiritual and secretive and eerie. However, what heightens all of these performances is Aster’s great directing as he choreographs certain scenes in a fascinating way and uses the full scope of the frame to create a very atmospheric film. From the mesmerizing choreography of the rituals to the way Aster has actions take place just off-screen, he’s incredibly effective at building suspense and mystery. Even the way he frames conversations between character through mirrors and reflections is great because it creates these awesome one-takes that help flesh out the characters and their relationships.
I will say that while I did appreciate the characters and how the film delves into their relationships, I still think Aster could’ve done more to help viewers understand their motivations and their thoughts on things. While Dani, Christian, and the rest of the group have small parts to them that make them unique, they are pretty much tropes at times that they struggle to break out of. Christian is clearly just the “crappy boyfriend” character, but I constantly wished that we got inside his head a little more to see if later decisions in the film are truly his own or just the influence of the controlling drugs the group takes throughout the film. Josh’s obsession with the cult is interesting, but never played out enough and he makes a fatal decision that I don’t necessarily think made sense for how logical he thinks. Poulter also isn’t given enough to do here as Mark other than be the comic relief and I wished that there was a stronger friendship built between him and the rest of the group. Even the family tragedy that’s shown in the opening is sort of left hanging as there’s no real resolution to it and it doesn’t play much of a part in Dani’s finale.
Aster also uses this tragedy to delve into how we cope with loss and grief and his message is sort left to be determined. Personally, I think that Midsommar showcases how we attach ourselves to things or even people when maybe we shouldn’t to either not experience or cope with grief and that we should let things go. This idea stems from the nature of Dani and Christian’s relationship and how they stay together even when things are probably already over as well as how the film ends and Dani’s final reaction to everything. Now, this is just my personal guess and even with it I feel like I am grasping at straws because of how complicated the film can be. If someone came to me and said that they didn’t really understand what Aster was going for, I wouldn’t really blame him because he does struggle to keep focus at times and if he tied Dani’s family tragedy into the ending better, the message would’ve been clearer. It’s more than likely, though, that Aster has placed clues throughout the film that could make a re-watch more rewarding.
Well, there actually is no if as Aster uses some great visuals to hint at plot points and even has dialogues between characters that begin to flesh out what this commune/cult is all about. There’s a great opening painting that actually gives viewers a sneak peek in what they should expect to see and it’s always cool to see this because it already sucks viewers in and keeps them guessing as to what’s going to come. Little hints like this are used throughout the entire film and it’s a great way to constantly keep viewers engaged and entice them to even revisit Midsommar. I also enjoyed how Aster utilizes the slower parts of the film, as there are plenty of them throughout, to delve into the activities of the commune. Watching everything unfold, I was always engaged to learn more about what the commune was all about and there’s some great build-up to some of the more horrific scenes Midsommar has.
There’re definitely no shortages of unnerving moments in Midsommar and there’s some scenes that will leave viewers in complete shock. Honestly, there’s some stuff that happens in this film that I will not forget anytime soon, and I actually loved how absolutely nuts the film gets towards its finale. The ending of Midsommar is trippy, creepy, and just plain crazy to see unfold, and everything that happened with Dani and Christian is surprising and mortifying to watch. Even Aster’s use of blood and gore leads to some skin-crawling imagery, but also to some unfortunately unintentional comedy. There’re some moments with skinned faces that are distracting and almost funny because of how bad they look. They clearly look fake and it was disappointing to see these moments be botched because they are a part of some important moments in the film and it makes the film look cheap when it doesn’t need to.
Even if it isn’t perfect, Midsommar is still another strong showing for Aster as a horror visionary and boasts some excellent imagery and performances that make the film worth watching. Personally, I actually think that Midsommar is more engaging, unnerving, and inventive than Hereditary and I already have a strong urge to see Midsommar as soon as I can. It’s definitely not a film for everyone, just like Hereditary, but those willing to see what else Aster has up his sleeve will be anxiously waiting for his next film, just like I am.