MIDSOMMAR IS SOAKED IN THE MIDNIGHT SUN, BUT FAILS TO DAZZLE
Ari Aster follows his hit Hereditary (2018) with Midsommar, a slow-burning horror of an admirably different ilk, set predominately set in a weird commune in a remote part of northern Sweden. Although this second film has not received the universal praise of his debut, nevertheless, has still been picking up decent reviews, minus the buzz Hereditary carried from the horror festival circuit. Lasting a backside numbing 140 minutes, but feeling so much longer, although it had its moments I was ultimately both frustrated and disappointed by Midsommar.
The film opened strongly with university psychology student Dani (Florence Pugh) dealing with a horrible family tragedy and being supported by her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), who is studying anthropology. Christian’s friends, particularly Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper) find Dani to be both irritating and needy and have been encouraging Christian to dump her. The guys are secretly planning to visit Sweden, with their mutual friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who is from the northern part of the country, but is studying in the USA. They intend to be there for the famous midnight sun, the time of the year where the sun hardly sets. Eventually Dani finds out about the trip, feeling guilty, Christian invites her along, to the dismay of the other guys. These early scenes worked very well for early character development, but when the group arrived at the Swedish commune there was little further advancement. The clever build up between the two main characters stalled, becoming toxic, as they shambled around in a zonked-out haze.
After a long drive the group arrive at Hälsingland, but before they are introduced to the inhabitants of the commune, they are invited to take magic mushrooms, the first of many drugs they neck, including regular cups of tea with hallucinogenic properties. This leads to very trippy cinematography, which is one of the strengths of the film, but ultimately this became tiresome and repetitive relatively quickly. The inhabitants of the commune were deadly dull and for the most part these cardboard cut-outs lurked in the background and did not do very much except perform odd dances, rituals, cook and clean. I lost could of the number of tiresome meals the American guests seemed to sit through and the scenes which slowly introduced the activities of the commune held little in the way of surprises and received little explanation. I kept hoping something more interesting would happen. It didn’t.
You cannot review Midsommar without referencing The Wicker Man which is the gold standard of films dealing with pagan cults or folk horror. By way of comparison, many of the great strengths of The Wicker Man are completely absent in this film, there is no Christopher Lee leading character as a charismatic frontman, the Swedish guys are stiff as planks of wood and none of them had any particular character development. Even the young Swede who invited the Americans, Pelle, seemed to disappear from the film. And there was certainly no equivalent of the sex bomb Britt Ekland and the attractive leggy blondes Sweden is famed for were for the most part absent from proceedings. The Americans were equally flat, although two of them were studying anthropology they showed little interest in their studies until they realise the commune could be perfect subject matter for their upcoming thesis. One of the key components of The Wicker Man was the fact that Edward Woodward had strong Christian beliefs, which the cult wanted him to renounce, these guys did not believe in much of anything and you will feel little sympathy for them as they come to a bad end.
For the majority of the time the Swedes are window-dressing frolicking in the meadow where the commune is based and do little of interest; milking cows, baking bread or playing games and this really tested my patience. If you want to see lots of girls running around in circles until they collapse with exhaustion you might enjoy it, I certainly did not. This may well be branded arthouse horror and others will muse about folk horror, but ultimately I found it to be pretentious, uninspiring and a rather empty experience.
Once the first truly horrible scene arrives, and the American’s shocked reaction to it was spot on, proceedings livening up slightly as the visitors realised this was not the hippy commune they thought it was. From then on most of the film was telegraphed, and if not for a kinky sex scene, it played out exactly as predicted, until the underwhelming ending which had further nods to The Wicker Man.
Moving on, Florence Pugh’s character Dani begins to dominate the film and the actress does most of the heavy lifting with some fine acting, with the male characters seemingly side-lined as the film developed and her relationship with Christian becomes increasingly strained. They were also incredibly slow on the uptake that something was wrong, however, the magic mushrooms may well be to blame for their lack of urgency.
How convincing was this as a cult? Not very. It felt like a bunch of random ideas thrown together on the back of a postage stamp, not much of which made sense. However, the idea of the age of 72 becoming significant, splitting an individual’s life into four segments of 18 years did catch my attention. Check out Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master for a cult which is infinitely more believable which also had a genuinely charismatic leader, rather than your best friend’s Swedish granddad.
I’m sure lots of folks will enjoy the self-indulgence of this film and philosophise about its different layers and the obscure inner meaning of it all, I prefer a good scare and in that department this film came up way short. Having said that, a good scare is not everything, but a compelling story is, and once again Midsommar came up short with much style over substance. Horror does not necessarily have to be frightening, but way too much happened off-screen for my taste.
Ari Aster is an interesting talent and even though I was not a fan of Midsommar I remain intrigued in seeing which direction he takes next and will undoubtedly head to the big screen when his next arrives. One cannot argue with the fact that he is one of the most original and challenging young directors working in cinema today. M. Night Shyamalan set the world alight with his early classics and has been hit and miss ever since, is this the future which awaits Aster? Or perhaps he is more of a Ben Wheatley type of filmmaker who has diversified from horror and also covered the subject of cults in his masterpiece The Kill List? Chances are he is neither, a bit of both, or more likely his own man.