Director: Ari Aster Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Ellora Torchia, Archie Madekwe Runtime: 147 minutes
Watching Midsommar feels like watching someone boil a frog. And no matter how much pretty lighting and composition you use in the process, you can’t help thinking “Why are we boiling this frog?”
Ari Aster wrote and directed Hereditary last year, shocking critics and horror fans alike with his beautiful frames and brutal, shocking images. Award-winning actress Toni Collette made the film with her harrowing depiction of a grieving mother (and daughter). It can often appear as though the horror genre is lacking in creativity and innovation because of its reliance on tropes and familiar motifs, and perhaps because of this directors who do something in any way different get overly praised. Hereditary was a flash in the pan, helped along by the shock of the sudden brutal imagery which is becoming a calling card for Aster, along with the incredible performance from Collette. With Midsommar, Aster fails to catch that magic twice.
The film’s premise is simplistic; a group of American lads are invited by their Swedish friend to come to a folk festival run by a commune. Bad things start to happen and anyone who questions it disappears. All standard horror fare. The strange thing here is that for so much of the film, Aster builds no dread or tension. As soon as we get through the first brutal set piece early on in the festivities, it’s clear that the group will be picked off one by one. But in keeping this mostly offscreen, it’s unclear what exactly the film is trying to achieve. With Hereditary, you don’t necessarily feel fear but you do feel dread throughout and removing that element from Midsommar makes for a much weaker film. I wonder if this was a conscious choice to make the gore all the more stark but it fell flat for me.
Florence Pugh gives a nuanced performance as Dani, put-upon girlfriend of Ireland’s own Jack Reynor’s character Christian. She is experiencing a major bereavement and we watch her emotionally processing throughout the film as more and more trauma is heaped upon her. Her grief lends depth that is missing from the other plotlines and I wish we’d spent more time focusing on Dani, as Aster does have a clear understanding of the dynamics of grief. The interactions between Dani and Christian are also unfortunately so recognisable in their bleakness; he forgets her birthday, their anniversary and the fact that they’ve been together 4 years and gaslights her repeatedly. Their problematic relationship was one of the more compelling aspects of the film, but the momentum built here didn’t ever get channelled between the two of them which I found frustrating.
It has to be said, the cinematography and set design are stunning. The super bright scenes in the Swedish countryside are punctuated by stark dark frames achieved by shooting through a wooden wheel and doorways. A major plot point is conveyed via rich, vibrant tapestry and we see further clues on the frescoed walls of all of the buildings. From a visual standpoint the film is worth watching, it’s just a pity that that the interactions between our main characters are hamstrung.
For a horror film in 2019 to use a physically deformed child as a plot device is incredibly disappointing. If he had been removed, nothing significant changes so this is a damning choice made by Aster. This director has technical competence and a recognisable visual style, but may not be a strong enough writer. It will be interesting to see how he handles a script he hasn’t developed. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; if you’re going to have a runtime over 90 minutes you really have to justify it and Midsommar doesn’t. It behaves like a mystery but because it’s quite clear what (if not how) is going to happen, a shorter runtime would have the benefit of making the pacing issues less glaring. (3 / 5)