Surface-level comparisons to directors Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch are easy to make when discussing horror in Ari Aster’s work. There is an investment in transforming the emotional, the mundane, and the pleasant moments of life into something cacophonous. Learning that a loved one has died, sitting on a plane, and prancing through a meadow are made equally unnerving either through a score that imitates the destruction of a violin or sounds that amplify the droning vibrations of an eerie silence; everything is made threatening. Aster’s filmmaking mastery goes beyond the contemporary film fanatic dog whistle of well-framed steady-cam long shots. Formally, he actually is the real deal. The rest is where the debate comes in.
In Midsommar, the “foreign ominous” of small-town Sweden is made horrific when the emotionally traumatized Dani (Florence Pugh), her boyfriend, and his friends visit a cultish village for a brief retreat per the suggestion of a charming new friend. As per Hereditary Aster’s previous film, the filmmaker knows how to simultaneously affect an audience and provide a sense that something grand is approaching, but the sustained note of hypertension around the setting degrades from enveloping for the 90 minutes to irritation over the course of a nearly 150-minute running time when no other note is being considered.
Characters rarely feel like they are progressing, both emotionally or practically, as characters begin to lose the motivation to leave. Dani’s strained romance and her trauma around losing her parents may be introduced in a spectacular fashion, but upon her visit to the Swedish village, she rarely reflects on her main concerns: her beau or death. She, like the rest of the group (the boyfriend, the researcher, and the supportive broski who wants some tail), rarely have their perspectives on much of anything change. They continue to fear their surrounding to different extents and their opinions on each other rarely change or even escalate. The boyfriend and researcher quarrel over topics of research but never come to blows that shift the stakes of their situation.
Compared to less lofty genre-faire, this is insubstantial, but Midsommar, like, say, The Shining bills itself early on as a work that has an interest in processing trauma. There is a progression in between the supernatural in Kubrick’s film, where the building lack of interactions between characters moves them further apart. Aster used to understand this with Hereditary a film that reaches a conclusion about its themes through a story with participants that are ever-changing. It doesn’t matter if Aster reached a conclusion if it reads as an abrupt bullet point.
In turn, the set pieces and standoffs in Midsommar eventually read as eclectic shenanigans. By the end of the film, the village feels like a contradictory collection of eerie customs and odd interactions. It’s not a believable community, despite the constant hand-holding, frolicking, and universally convincing performances. In the middle of the village’s structural regulation on the sexual lives of its citizens, activities that celebrate the primal nature of the body occur. The sanctity of controlling the stages of one’s life is key, yet the villagers actively harm others. By the end, every conventional taboo is beaten up and left in the dirt in an attempt to appear shocking. Nothing is off the table as sex, death, flesh, and decorum are all thrown in a proverbial meat grinder. How shocking! Despite its formal mastery, the cult’s antics become as tiresome as any other shock scare in any other “obviously lesser” genre material.
Certainly, the ability to elicit extreme affective responses comes naturally to Aster. Like Hereditary, Midsommar is impactful not because of its graphic deaths, but because of its ability to make you feel trapped. There is a nausea that builds over those first two hours as the logistics of the surroundings are made inexact to both the characters and the audience; nobody is on the same page and it’s sickening. While the final thirty minutes leave an acrid final impression, the affective intensity of the majority cannot be undersold. It’s a feeling that only great works instill, despite certainly not being one.
To Aster, form is feeling and feeling is the substance. Returning to a previous topic, sound is not only used as a looming presence, but as a tool for transitions. Loud noises accompanying uncrowded images abruptly move into mute stills of complicated group shots. That kind of disorientation is the name of the game here, not the rest. The effect certainly is there and despite my frustrations, I won’t commit to saying “so what?”
Ari Aster's sophomore feature Midsommar is formally strong but lacks the narrative / thematic punch to sustain itself over its extended runtime