Monday, August 5, 2019

Review: Midsommar (2019)

Midsommar (2019)

Rated R for disturbing ritualistic violence and grisly images, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language

Score: 4 out of 5

Midsommar is a beast of a movie. Not just in that it's filled with shocking and graphic imagery that earns the R rating and content descriptors up there, all hiding behind the bright coating of a fanciful commune set almost entirely in broad daylight. No, it's also nearly two and a half hours long, with writer/director Ari Aster confirming that he has a three-hour director's cut in the works. It is a slow descent into hell that, much like Rosemary's Baby, sneaks up on you, presenting itself initially as just a film about a kooky religious community that may have a dark secret until, all of a sudden, shit gets real. It shares a lot with Aster's previous film Hereditary, one of my candidates for the best films of 2018, in the sense of both being slow burns with only hints of something supernatural going on that build to a horrifying payoff, all against the backdrop of a picturesque locale that at first glance seems like the exact opposite of a traditional horror movie setting. I didn't quite personally connect with the subject matter of Midsommar the way I did with Hereditary, and in terms of plotting much of it will be pretty familiar to anybody who's seen a horror movie about a religious cult, but this one is about the characters and their journey, the ultimate circumstances of what the cult is actually doing being secondary to the relationship between the protagonists Dani and Christian. Midsommar is exactly the kind of weird, stylish, and offbeat horror movie suggested by both the trailers and the track records of Aster and distributor A24, and it does exactly what it sets out to do.

Our main characters are a group of American college students who travel to Sweden in order to partake in a midsummer festival. There's Mark, the lech who's going to Sweden in order to pick up chicks, Josh, who's interested in it for his anthropology paper, Pelle, who's originally from Sweden and invited the group, and finally, Dani and Christian, who are dating. Dani recently lost her sister and parents when the former killed the latter and then herself, which has only further strained her relationship with Christian, who seems to regard her as a millstone around his neck who's keeping him from hanging out with the boys. Things only get tougher between them when they actually reach the pagan commune in Sweden where the festival is being held, where the people are endearingly weird, the magic mushrooms are in no short supply, the high latitude means that the daylight hours during the summer solstice run past 9 PM... and the leaders of the commune are clearly covering something up.

First things first, this is not at all the Sweden commonly depicted in modern horror films and thrillers, like Let the Right One In or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This is not a land where, even at midday, the sun is hanging just over the horizon in the dead of winter and everybody is moody, grim, and darkly sexual. This is the Sweden of older pop culture, the land where the men are chiseled and jubilant and the women are busty and bubbly, the Sweden that generations of men, including this film's Mark, have fantasized about as a land of libertines and the nice kind of socialism. As the title suggests, it's set nowhere near the winter with its long nights; nearly every shot is bathed in the late June sun that's up for twenty hours a day. It's an environment that looks inviting at first glance, but as the sunlight just never goes away like it should, it starts to feel as though something is wrong out here on the geographical extreme of the world. The same is true of the pagan hippies whose commune the protagonists are visiting, with Dani's introduction coming in the form of a drug trip that only hints at the darker things to come. They're a seemingly harmless group of people who support themselves through artisanal goods and wear traditional Swedish clothing, but almost from the moment the protagonists get there they seem to be hiding things from them, particularly the purpose of the church-like building off in the distance. Aster's direction immediately creates the sense that something is off about this place, without ever directly showing or even implying anything supernatural going on; unlike Hereditary, where by the end there was no doubt that there were demons involved, here it's left up in the air whether or not everything has a mundane explanation. But even the mundane explanation is no comfort in the face of a group of people for whom seemingly horrifying sights are treated as just another day in the garden, especially given that the protagonists have no idea what's in their food and drink. The sense of unease only continues once the fridge horror sets in; if you know where to look, it's suggested that the cult's reach stretches far beyond their commune in Sweden. They've had their eye on Dani for a very long time.

That's not all that's going on here, however. It's not much of a spoiler to say that the cult is evil, and once that fact is revealed in a scene that snaps from beautiful to horrifying in seconds, that part of the story goes in the direction you expect it to. But fortunately, the core of this film's twists and turns does not lay in the cult itself, but in the people getting sucked into it, above all Dani and Christian. Dani is precisely the kind of person who psychologists have long known is easy prey for a cult: somebody who may look successful on the surface, but is dealing with personal tragedy and dissatisfaction in her personal life, with her crumbling relationship with Christian being a major source of that dissatisfaction. And over the course of the film, it becomes clear that the cult knew about all of the problems in Dani's life thanks to Pelle, a member of the commune, and his friendship with them; he did, after all, scheme to get her to want to come by way of reverse psychology (Christian never told Dani about the trip, so that just made Dani interested). By the time the film reaches its fiery ending, it becomes apparent that Dani and Christian's relationship was where the film's true heart lay. Just as Hereditary was about dealing with the grief of losing a loved one and unpacking the complicated feelings you had for that person in life, this film is about dealing with a relationship that, while not abusive, is still unsatisfying and is probably doing you more harm than good. Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor play the unhappy couple at the center of the film, and Pugh does a great job bringing to life both Dani's growing dissatisfaction and her increasingly unsettled feel towards the commune she's in, as does Raynor as Christian, a guy who takes Dani for granted as the cult tempts him in a way that, without spoiling anything, seems designed to piss off his girlfriend. The supporting players too all felt compelling, with both Mark and Josh in particular seeing their worst sins -- Mark's horniness, Josh's curiosity, and the "ugly American" disrespect for the locals exhibited by both of them in different ways -- ultimately earning them karmic punishments.

And the film is gorgeous to look at, too. The daylight-horror aesthetic I praised earlier is just the beginning; Dani's hallucination shortly after arriving, in which some mushrooms send her on a bad trip, feels genuinely trippy, with shots of the bark flowing up a tree, the grass growing through her hand, and everything seeming like it's melting rather than just hollow "far out, man!" references. This sets the stage for the rest of the film, where it is hinted that the things Dani and Christian see and hear may not be the whole story, and that they -- and the viewer -- can't necessarily trust their own senses. A perfect tone for a film about a cult that's trying to change their perception of the world, to the point where Dani's decision, as mad as it may have seemed on the surface, couldn't help but feel like it made a sick sort of sense. It's also got all the icky gore and sex scenes you'd expect, especially given the shocking bursts of brutality that characterized Hereditary, made all the more jarring by the backdrop against which they take place. This film's bright atmosphere is skin-deep, eventually being peeled away to reveal some genuine darkness that makes all the cheery festivities we see suddenly take on a very different meaning. That joyous-looking dance for the May Queen festival? How do you know they're not choosing Dani for something fucked up after some of the shit you've seen before then?

The Bottom Line

It may not have hit me personally as hard as Hereditary did, but it's still a film I plan on rewatching once the director's cut comes out. Unique in style if not in story, this proves that Ari Aster isn't a one-hit wonder. Just be prepared for it to take its time to get moving.

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