Jul 9, 2019
Welcome back for our second Certified Fresh film this week, Ari Aster’s “Midsommar”, his follow-up to last year’s “Hereditary” (Episode #525), which we re-ran earlier this week. Just when you think horror has found all its limits, new voices come forward to push the boundaries a little bit more, and we all get to reap the rewards. Well, all of us except most of the protagonists who don’t make it. For a few other films in this same vein, check out “A Dark Song” (Episode #489), “The Ritual” (Episode #045), and “Cthulhu” (Episode #444). All three treat ritualistic magic in interesting ways.
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Before we start, this film comes with multiple trigger warnings, including multiple depictions of suicide, episodes of emotional abuse and manipulation, graphic gore, and very explicit sexual content. If any of that is too much, definitely pass on this film, and possibly the review.
Here we go!
Today’s movie is “Midsommar”, written and directed by Ari Aster. The film follows Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), an American couple having relationship trouble and dealing with family tragedy. When Christian and his friends decide to head to a remote Swedish village for a summer festival, Dani invites herself along and things go very, very wrong.
Critics are approaching “Midsommar” for Ari Aster like they approached “Us” (Episode #449) for Jordan Peele this year. Both creators have pushed the boundaries and perspectives of horror in the past three years, and both have put out their second film, which were both highly anticipated after major successes with their first film. It’s probably the worst place to be for any breakout film-maker, because you have the hype and the loaded expectations surrounding that hype, whether you want it or not. Some directors in this situation have failed spectacularly, but I’m happy to say that Ari Aster, like Jordan Peele, has come through with another excellent film.
Why? I think both are quite aware of their strengths within their first pictures, which will hopefully evolve into the particular style of each director. Peele’s “Us” continued with themes involving identity, particularly black identity, and how society uses identity to determine class. Aster, in “Midsommar”, takes another look at ritualistic magic, keeping the same well-researched approach to the lore, and perfectly aligning the cinematography, art direction, costumes, and sets to the story, and taking the subject matter very seriously.
“Midsommar” compares and contrasts two very different worlds. Dani, Christian, and their friends represent the modern industrial world, roughly middle class, and very individualistic. Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), along with his fellow Hårga, represent a more idyllic world, classless and communally organized. It’s also about the two very different worlds that Dani and Christian are living within, as we find out in the horrific cold open. Dani is holding on to whatever she can in the midst of a family crisis, and Christian looking to bail at the next opportunity, which is postponed after the tragedy, even as their relationship shows clear signs of strain, especially regarding the trip to Sweden. This puts Dani in a vulnerable situation, looking to escape a life and relationship laden with depression and anxiety, and finding a paradise, at least on the surface.
In “Hereditary”, Aster’s protagonists are discovering hidden secrets within familiar surroundings, in a way reminiscent of Stephen King’s small-town horror. In “Midsommar”, however, we’re discovering the entire society of the Hårga along with our protagonists, which is what drew Christian and his friends as anthropology students to the festival in the first place. The visitors participate in an informal initiation ritual before arriving, involving magic mushrooms and the midnight sun. Aster’s effects team simulates the experience with incredible psychedelic editing that pulses and transforms the surroundings, some of the best effects editing you’ll ever see.
And... do you feel that?
Quick story. One Movie Spouse and I went to see the film almost immediately after I was freed from the bunker. It was right around the psychedelic initiation ritual that the 6.6 earthquake hit in California, which began shaking our theater. The sparse crowd of fifteen or so of us started looking around the theater, and we confirmed that yes, we were all feeling that. Oh yeah, and to the family that brought their pre-teen kid, what were you even thinking?!
Because “Midsommar” opens up the audience to new experiences, new cultures and insights. Like Dani, we are lulled into a fascination with the Hårga, built from ancient Scandinavian naturalistic religions with as much detail as the demonology within “Hereditary”, and told over a lushly detailed set with gorgeous costumes. It’s a beautiful tapestry over which to tell a progressively more gruesome story as the festival continues, one that challenges notions about suicide, community, meat pies, mating, child-rearing, and tradition, first in minor ways, then in major ways, as the visitors begin disappearing in broad daylight, and Dani and Christian find themselves swept up into other, more controversial rituals.
The more controversial parts were part of my criticism for the film. Not for their subject matter, but that they tended to linger a little too long, almost feeling exploitative, including another few examples of Aster’s fascination with gruesome heads. The other criticism had to do with the comic relief. “Midsommar” has more humor than one might expect, especially from Mark (Will Poulter), Christian’s friend who lacks any sense of cultural sensitivity or possess a filter. In nearly all cases, the humor is brilliant, cutting just enough tension to give us a break and take our guard down. But in a few cases, the comedy cuts too much tension, leaving a few scenes vulnerable for misinterpretation. Both criticisms are minor, but they’re noticeable.
“Midsommar” is a stunningly beautiful and traumatizing horror film, well-researched and well-constructed, which tells the story of both the modern age and its ancient origins. If you can manage all the trigger warnings at the top of the review, and you like horror films made with incredible care and detail, then you should definitely check out this film. However, some of the content is extremely gruesome and sexually explicit, so maybe not the pre-teen kids, mmmkay?
Rotten Tomatoes: 83% (CERTIFIED FRESH)
One Movie Punch: 9.6/10
“Midsommar” (2019) is rated R and is currently playing in theaters.