MidsommarReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/02/19 12:48:08
After the release of his undeniably brilliant and occasionally frustrating debut film, the critical and commercial horror hit “Hereditary,” writer-director Ari Aster found himself in the rarefied position of being able to do pretty much anything that he wanted for his followup project. When others in the past have found themselves at this exact career crossroads, the results have oftentimes falling into one of two categories—either they prove to be films as bold, visionary and unique as the ones that brought them attention or they wind up being bloated rehashes of those previous efforts that have been put together with more money but less creativity. In the case of his latest film, “Midsommar,” it appears Aster has clearly elected to go down both paths at the same time. At its best, the film is a brutal, brutally funny and visually spectacular work that truly gets under your skin with horrors that are all the more terrifying because of how recognizable they will prove to be to most viewers. At its worst, is a way-too-long meditation of themes that he already successfully mined the first time around and which wears its obvious influences so blatantly on its sleeve that there are times when it feels more like a remake than an original work.At the center of “MIdsommar” is a romantic relationship that is about as toxic as can be without having a skull and crossbones flashing on the screen whenever the participants appear. He is Christian (Jack Raynor), a laid-back bro who is content to simply let things lay instead of actually taking steps of his own to do anything that might make him seem less likable than he thinks he is. She is Dani (Florence Pugh) and she has plenty of problems of her own, including co-dependency issues and problems with her family, especially a sister with emotional problems of her own. As the film starts, they have been together for about 3 1/2 years but just from watching them talk to each other on the phone for a few minutes in the opening sequence—her overly neurotic and needy and he unwilling or unable to offer anything beyond the most facile gestures of compassion and empathy—it is beyond obvious that what they have is, to steal a line from a slightly lighter romantic comedy, “a dead shark.” Christian’s douchebag pal Mark (Will Poulter) constantly hounds him to finally break up with her and he appears close to finally pulling the trigger when an unimaginable tragedy plunges Dani into a massive depression and Christian, not wanting to seem like a bad guy, chickens out and leaves things as they are.
Six months pass and at a party scene, we learn that Christian, along with Mark and their other roommate, Josh (William Jackson Harper), is leaving in a couple of weeks to spend time in a remote village in the Swedish countryside at the invitation of another friend, Pelle (Villhelm Blomgren) in order to observe the unique rituals that the self-sustaining community partakes in once every 90 years. (This is of particular interest to Josh as such cuktures are at the center of his field of study.) The trouble, of course, is that this is the first time that Dani is hearing that Christian is actually going as well and is quite understandably upset that he neglected to mention it to her. Once again, unwilling to do anything that might make him look bad, half-heartedly invites her to come along, never dreaming that she might actually accept the offer. To his surprise and to the dismay of most of his pals, except for Pelle, Dani does accept and soon the group is arriving at Pelle’s home village, where they are greeted by the locals with open arms and powerful psychedelics to kick off the nine days of festivities. Things seem a little odd at first—the sun doesn’t set until around 10:00 PM, there is a caged bear that is inexplicably on hand and the various murals on hands depicting odd pagan rituals are not very comforting—but they are clueless as to just how odd things are going to get over the next few days, especially in regards as to what is in store for them.
For the first 45 minutes or so, roughly the amount of time it takes for the characters to finally reach the village, “Midsommar” is absolutely spectacular. Having explored ideas about guilt, depression, grief and the agony of toxic relationships to such powerful effect in “Hereditary,” Aster returns to those themes, substituting troubling romantic relationships for the painful familial ones found in his previous effort. The result is undeniably grim and wounding and blackly funny and may well be the most terrifyingly incisive portrait of a relationship that has gone on way past its sell-by date since Albert Brooks’s 1981 masterpiece “Modern Romance.” If you have ever been in the middle of a bad relationship or have known people in the midst of one, this film will remind you of those awful moments with such pinpoint clarity that you almost feel the need to turn away from the screen at certain points. While credit is due to the smart writing and empathetic direction from Aster, a lot of it is due to the work of the two leads. Pugh, who has already delivered one of the most charming performances of the year in “Fighting with My Family,” is even better here as Dani, finding a way to engender sympathy for her while never once minimizing her own considerable faults. Reynor is very effective as well in these scenes—his character is the ultimate douchebag but he invests him with enough sheepish charm to suggest why some people might want to stick it out with him instead of pummeling his skull with a hammer.
Once the film hits the village, however, “Midsommar” begins to lose its grip. Some of the early moments there as we get a lay of the land are interesting and the first key ritual that reveals that Pelle did not quite explain everything that was going to occur (although you would think that Josh might have had some idea of what was to come) is presented in a manner that is both visually arresting and spectacularly gruesome. The problem is that once all of this is established, Aster doesn’t seem to have a sure grip of where he wants the story to go and so the screenplay becomes a virtual laundry list that dutifully checks off such items as an array of grotesque tortures and psychedelic freak-outs, sexual obsession, arguments over Christian trying to horn in on Josh’s work for his own thesis, an inbred oracle, a dance competition and, most significantly, the sight of theoretically intelligent people suddenly acting like absolute idiots for no other reason than because the script requires it to move on to the next point. (The film gets so desperate in this regard that it even sinks to having super-ugly American Mark pissing on a sacred tree in order to upset the village elders.) And when I say “move on to the next point,” I am being a tad facetious because the whole shebang clocks in at 140 minutes and at a certain point, you get the sense that Aster is determined to make you feel each and every one of them pass by as slowly as possible.
There is another problem with “MIdsommar,” though it is one that will only affect those with a familiarity for classic horror films. For those with a working knowledge of the genre, the plot of film may remind them of a particular cult classic—I won’t actually mention it here but genre fans should have no trouble identifying it. While not a remake in any particular way—a good idea since the film in question was already remade and not very well, according to most observers—it hews so closely to that film that I found myself assuming that Aster was using this familiarity as a way of misdirecting viewers before spinning things off into wild and unexpected territory. Alas, that is not really the case and we are left with a super-trippy film that nevertheless contains an ending that, at least in the broad strokes, can be seen a mile away. Of course, failing to fully stick the landing was perhaps the one major problem with “Hereditary” and it suggests that for his next project, Aster might want to employ the services of a co-writer who might be able to help him come up with more satisfying conclusions to his stories.Walking out of “Midsommar” after watching it, I confess that I kind of hated it—I described it to some people as being like the “Lost Horizon” remake with [i]slightly[/i] better music. To a certain degree, I still agree with the assessment but at the same time, there are a lot of things about the film that are undeniably praiseworthy. The spellbinding opening 45 minute stretch. The brave and bold performance by Florence Pugh that cements her position as one of the most exciting new actresses around. The oftentimes startling effective visual style that manages to make constant daylight just as creepy and forbidding as the black of night. The moments of weirdo dark humor that help to temporarily lighten an otherwise painfully grim load. I cannot fully recommend “Midsommar” but I also cannot deny that it has a lot of stuff in it that works and that it confirms that Aster has immense talent as a director—if less so as a writer—even if those talents have not been put to full use here. If you are still intrigued by the notion of “MIdsommar,” though, I would not necessarily dissuade you from seeing it either—I suspect that this is one of those that will be polarizing audience. However, my hope is that in the end, it will prove to be just another uneven second feature from a talented newcomer who needed to clear the deck of some bad ideas before going on the make the kind of knockout film that takes full advantage of their talents and leaves the dodgy stuff behind where it belongs.
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