‘Midsommar’ Review: The Horrors of Relationships, And Also Bizarre Pagan Rituals
Ari Aster makes horror movies with feeling. The human emotions they explore — grief, rage, depression — are a lot scarier than the more traditional horror elements like the witches and cultists and, in this case, bizarre pagan rituals. Honestly, his setups are sometimes so brutally intense, and the atmosphere of dread so suffocating, that the parts where all hell actually breaks loose and crazy shenanigans befall our doomed heroes can feel like a relief.
That’s very much the case in Midsommar, an outstanding depiction of a broken relationship that turns into a so-so gorefest at a solstice festival in Sweden. The stuff about this couple in decline is lacerating and painful in the best and most hilarious ways possible. The stuff about the solstice is standard horror fare made unfurled, with exceptional craft, at a snail’s pace. And the longer Midsommar goes, the further it gets from the pain and the loss that fueled its emotional core, until it has lost touch with the things that made it special.
The introductory scenes really are special, though. That’s where we meet Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor). They’ve been together for four years — although Christian thinks it’s only been three and a half, which is part of the problem. He’s basically checked out at this point, but despite constant needling from his grad school buddies (including William Jackson Harper’s Josh and Will Poulter’s Mark) he can’t pull the trigger on a breakup. Then Dani’s entire family dies in one of the most terrible ways imaginable and Christian’s stuck comforting her — and then inviting her on a vacation with him and his bros out to Sweden where they’re the invited guests of a Swedish classmate (Vilhelm Blomgren) at his village’s annual summer celebration. The comedy in these scenes — as Dani and Christian struggle to communicate while tiptoeing around their real feelings — is so bleak and awkward it could be the premise of an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
The interplay between Dani and Christian, and the harrowing circumstances surrounding Dani’s family take up Midsommar’s first 30 minutes, which are filled with dreamy cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski and clever montage editing by Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnston. (The shot that takes Dani from a breakdown in an apartment bathroom into another breakdown in an airplane bathroom in one seamless camera move is incredible.) That leaves almost two full hours — and at least a half-hour too much time — devoted to what happens when Dani, Christian, and their friends arrive in remote, rural Sweden. The culture clash between the urbane academics and these Swedish hippies is good for a few more chuckles, and the midsommar festivities are fascinating and peculiar for a while. Then the more overt terror takes over and the movie honestly lost me.
That’s not the fault of the performers. Florence Pugh gives the best performance I’ve seen from her to date as Dani, a wounded soul who’s leaning way too heavily on her unsupportive boyfriend. And Reynor’s equally good as Christian, just distant and indecisive and selfish enough to be absolutely infuriating. (It’s a bit hard to buy him as an academic with an interest in the origins of Swedish paganism, but whatever.) The colorful Swedish actors who fill out the little village are terrific too; charming, hospitable, funny — until the moment things go wrong.
That’s when some characters start to vanish, and the others barely seem to care or even notice. The Swedes start fumbling for excuses to explain the disappearances, and the outsiders accept them all without hesitation. Things drag on and on, with one arcane, disturbing ritual after another. The Americans are plied with so many psychedelics and sedatives they become utterly disconnected from the horrors around them. That might have been part of Aster’s overall scheme — to comment on the general passivity in Dani and Christian’s lives back home by noting how absurdly inert they are even in these extreme circumstances — but it’s a point made very slowly, at the expense of the audience’s interest, which (at least in my case) definitely started to drift long before Midsommar reached its conclusion.
You can see Aster continuing many of the themes he began exploring in his superior debut, Hereditary; another movie about unbreakable family ties, mental illness, and the way people sometimes can’t help but hurt the people they love the most. In that case, though, Aster did a better job of blending the domestic and the supernatural. In Midsommar, the film gradually shifts from these very precise, very specific insights into toxic relationships into very generic scares at a crazy Swedish summer camp, and the fact that Dani is grieving really doesn’t matter all that much by the time the Swedes get really nutty.
There’s some very gruesome imagery in those climactic sequences, but nothing that will linger with me like the uncomfortable conversation between Dani and Christian in her apartment where he tries to apologize for something, and then she says he’s not really apologizing, and then he tries to explain what he’s saying, and she says she doesn’t even need an apology in the first place. Communication this stilted and tense is the stuff of true horror.
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