After two ambitious but wildly uneven horror films, Ari Aster’s modus operandi as a writer/director of the genre has become apparent. His strengths lie in setting a mood, telling stories fueled by odd characters and demented behavior, and using sound design to make his well-thought-out visual schemes all the more disturbing. But just as evident are his faults. Alongside such virtues are an abundance of genre clichés, characters collapsing into caricature, and a loss of control over the material that usurps the third act. Aster is an audacious filmmaker, indeed, the kind who imaginatively sets a horror film in the sunny hillsides of rural Sweden of all places, but he’s also an unruly one. Too much of what he puts on the screen feels undisciplined, and often times, inept.
Last year’s HEREDITARY was a wonderfully tense and insinuating frightener until its hellzapoppin’ third act dove headlong into silliness. Aster started out telling a serious-minded horror tale about a dysfunctional mom who was repeating a cycle of erratic behavior and endangerment similar to her past with her own mother. Toni Collette gave one of the 2018’s best performances as that complicated matriarch battling her demons, but then Aster turned her character into a cartoonish nutjob in the third act. Suddenly, she was rubbing shoulders with ghosts, cultists, septuagenarian orgies, and wall-climbing demons, all while trying to kill her teen son. She ended up, in the final moments, levitating in mid-air while sawing off her own head. Aster’s serious psychological thriller had dissolved into a manic phantasm, something resembling an arch Freddy Krueger nightmare.
Aster’s new film MIDSOMMAR travels a similar course. It’s subtly unsettling at first, set up as a story that will examine and ultimately savage religion. The plot concerns four American college students who venture to Sweden to attend a mid-summer pagan ceremony and end up discovering practices there that are far more insidious than they could have possibly imagined. It resembles the 1973 horror classic WICKER MAN in its focus on an amiable, sheltered community where the smiling residents are not quite the loving commune at first believed.
In MIDSOMMAR, Josh (William Jackson Harper) is an anthropology student anxious to do his senior thesis on European rituals, a young man chomping on the bit to witness alternative religious practices first-hand. His fellow student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) is Swedish, and he invites Josh home to his native land to partake in his community’s pagan festival during the summer break. Joining them will be Josh’s buddies Mark (Will Poulter), a wise-acre horn dog hoping to score with a few blonde locals, and a couple now in their fourth year of dating. Christian (Jack Reynor) doesn’t really want his needy girlfriend Dani (Florence Pugh) to tag along, but she needs a distraction after witnessing a horrendous family tragedy.
Dani had a feeling her sister was in trouble when she left a cryptic text ending with an ominous ‘goodbye,’ but her concerns fell on Christian’s indifferent ears. Her slacker boyfriend was more interested in chowing down pizza and playing video games, so Dani was left alone to discover a triple murder in the family home. Her psychotic sibling gassed herself, along with mom and dad, using a garden hose to pump exhaust fumes from the family auto into the residence. It all makes for one incredibly harrowing opening as Aster brilliantly sets up the film’s sense of despair and inevitable doom.
Pugh gives a knockout performance in the first act too, suggesting a teen girl on edge, rubbed raw by the events in her family, and aching to find solace in the arms of her lover. Unfortunately, Christian is a shit of a boyfriend, and we have a sneaking suspicion that their Swedish vacation will either make or break the relationship.
When Pelle and his four American guests arrive in Sweden, they journey to join the festivities already in progress far up in the mountains. There, the townsfolk greet them with warmth, enticing them with drugged libations before they barely drop their suitcases. The hallucinogens dazzle the boys but frighten the girl. Dani’s reaction is that of a bad acid trip, filled with visions both idyllic and terrifying. Aster uses his camera to echo her loopiness as it vibrates and swoons along with his lead character. Dani even imagines her dead family members are there amongst the locals, and it’s one of Aster’s best set pieces in the film.
The filmmaker cleverly foreshadows disturbing events to come too as the camera lingers on pagan practices depicted on the historical tapestry and wall art in the cabins. One drawing shows a bear on fire, and another illustrates a woman’s private parts being cut out and turned into an entree. Then, when an actual grizzly bear shows up quietly sitting in a nearby cage, we in the audience start to put two and two together, even though Dani and the boys are slow on the uptake.
Then, on only the second day of the festival, the students witness a ritual that concludes with two senior citizens throwing themselves off of a nearby cliff. The old-timers commit suicide in front of everyone as part of their religion’s take on the cycle of life, but their ultra-violent acts sour the Americans. Aster shrewdly shows their deaths in all of its bloody grotesquery, horrifying his movie-going audience as well. But soon after such a dramatic highpoint, the filmmaker starts to lose his grip on the material.
His faltering begins when two British students, also in attendance, overreact to those leaps of death. They scream bloody murder at the locals, and their petulant rage doesn’t sit well with their hosts. Would guests in a foreign land genuinely behave so indignantly? Their furor is so over-the-top, you know that they’re doomed, and it starts to caricature the horror. Indeed, soon they’ve both disappeared, yet the Americans continue to act oblivious. Even when screams are heard in the distance, suggesting torture, the remaining students stick their heads in the sand.
Worse yet, the remaining students continue to partake in all the rituals, ingesting all sorts of drugged drinks and entrees willingly. Their stupidity starts to grate, and we begin to lose interest in rooting for them. Soon enough, Christian will discover a pubic hair baked into a pot pie, echoing the tapestry illustration, but doesn’t see it as the clarion wake-up call it should be. Why aren’t these characters smarter? Why do they stick around? Being so oblivious is a construct by Aster to keep them there, but such naivete on the Americans part rings false, especially as the creepy cult around them starts closing in.
Aster clearly wants to ridicule religion in his telling, suggesting that the pagan practices depicted here aren’t any more absurd than the Methodists who put on their Sunday best to commemorate the crucifixion of Christ at Easter over a potluck dinner of ham and scalloped potatoes. But as the film goes on, the filmmaker’s points become more strident, his American characters become uglier, and the many deaths that occur feel as hoary as the easy ones perpetrated by the likes of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers in their 80’s franchises.
The audience even starts to get way ahead of Aster’s story. We can see the deaths coming a mile away. So why can’t these smart college students? As they become dumber and dumber, continuing to let themselves be drugged, or walk into traps, or be coerced by their hosts, it becomes wholly irritating. And in his third act, once again, Aster cannot resist throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the mix. Full-frontal nudity, ritual sex, excessive gore, and over-the-top visuals that border on caricature appear, marring the ending just as they did in the finale of HEREDITARY.
It’s such a shame too because Aster’s film has many strengths. The cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski is superb, as is the production design headed by Henrik Svensson. Pugh’s performance is a standout of 2019 too. But then Aster blunders badly with the cartoonishness of some of the other characters, including a deformed pagan who shows up, supposedly the community’s oracle. What he’s really there for is to give one of the evil Swedes the unmistakable face of a monster. It’s a hoary, horror movie cliche, a gilding of the lily really. Aster’s pagans are already hideous enough, even though they’re blonde and beautiful.
In THE WICKER MAN, a smiling group of cultists also lured unsuspecting lambs to the slaughter, but writer Anthony Shaffer and director Robin Hardy got to their horrifying ending with fewer missteps. Aster overplays things, suggesting a filmmaker who doubted if his points were hitting home. (Really? Giving your most oblivious student character the name of Christian doesn’t communicate enough contempt for Western religion?) In the end, the film makes for a monstrously witty riff on the extremes Dani will plumb to break up with her crap boyfriend, but the rest of the film lurches towards silliness that belies the often superbly rendered horror. By the end, Aster even has his crazed locals descend into dancing, cackling fiends. It feels like an insane move for a smart filmmaker who should have known better.