Ari Aster, by rights, ought already to be buckling under the weight of all those accolades amassing around him, pronouncing him a horror wunderkind a mere two films into his career. But while both Midsommar and Hereditary have both received broadly comparable critical acclaim, his second feature will lag behind the first by some distance in box office. At least, unless something significant happens in a hitherto neglected territory.
That isn’t such a surprise on seeing it. While Hereditary keeps its hand firmly on the tiller of shock value and incident, so as to sustain it’s already more than adequate running time, Midsommar runs a full twenty minutes longer, which is positively – or rather, negatively – over-indulgent for what we have, and suggests a director whose crowned auteurishness has instantly gone to his head.
That’s by no means the cardinal sin of this Sweden-set Wicker Man-esque folk horror, however; after all, the recent Suspira was even longer, and while it also had no business being that long, it did at least sustain its duration. Aster consistently captures transfixing images in collaboration with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, and conjures a pervadingly claustrophobic mood amid the bright sunshine and wide-open spaces of its setting – only added to by the immersive, unsettling score from The Haxan Cloak.
However, I was finding myself just plain tired with the whole conceit (and it is a conceit) with what must have been about an hour left of running time; inconceivably, Aster has mooted an even longer cut. The fault therein being not that Aster the director hasn’t put something on screen that consistently command attention and diverts the gaze, but that Aster the writer simply isn’t able to maintain that conviction.
This is somewhat different to the problem faced by Hereditary, which rather fell apart during the last third as a consequence of the underwhelming big reveal; laying bare the implied or left to the imagination undid much of the impact of the preceding. Here, the issue is more that there’s nothing to unveil. As soon as a couple of septuagenarians hurl themselves to their very messy doom from a clifftop, any random visitor with their wits about them would make a bolt for it.
This is a movie about a freaky, white-robed nature cult featuring protagonists who have never seen, read or heard anything about the behaviour of freaky, white-robed nature cults (even those calling themselves The Polyphonic Spree). And, just for giggles, have zero common sense. So no different, in essence, to all those slasher movies with oblivious teenagers doing exactly what you shouldn’t do in such circumstances. At least the English couple want to get out when the aforementioned pensioners start dropping on the rocks, but they’re ultimately as mystifyingly self-deluding as everyone else in their way, failing to entertain a worst-case scenario, given the obvious signs that something is very, very wrong in their midst.
You might argue for the self-delusion of the anthropology student(s), but surely they should be exactly the ones to foster a degree of insight into the various extremes of practice that might occur in such cultish enclaves? The only one among whom I could potentially see this fateful scenario playing for is Dani (Florence Pugh), already characterised by a surrounding aura of death and eventually seeing her fate as a self-fulfilling prophecy and salvation of sorts (but only eventually, as she’s right there with a desire to leave when things start getting seriously weird).
Except that she’s the one who survives and is inducted into a new family. Because she is sufficiently emotionally dislocated to attune to the warped morality – or the differently warped morality, if you like – of this replacement peer group. Some readings, on a gender basis, have taken this as an empowerment fantasy, which if you want to buy into, you have to ignore a lot of brutal killing and brainwashing. But sure, if that floats your deranged boat.
Compounding the concern of unbelievable motivation is that Aster does such a skilful job during the first forty minutes or so, exploring entirely stark and shocking, all-consuming grief and hopelessness on Dani’s part (Pugh’s really very good here; I wasn’t persuaded by her turns in either Outlaw King or Little Drummer Girl, having been as impressed as many by Lady Macbeth, but this is probably as dedicated and commanding a lead performance as we’ll see this year). Aster’s incredibly adept at immersing the viewer in the subjective experience of his characters, be that the loosening grip on emotional security of a psychology student or (to more humorous ends) a party of trippers attempting to make hallucinogenic sense of their experiences (and the lurch into unremitting nightmare that can be triggered at the flick of a verbal switch).
He elicits strong performances from his cast too, the more actorly American visitors contrasted with the more naturalistic, faux-documentary performances of the cult members, of whom at least some are being outright studied/ interviewed. Jack Reynor’s boyfriend Christian, only remaining an item with Pugh through reluctant obligation, is utterly unsympathetic (which, as if it needs saying, does not mean he deserves to be burnt to death, any more than Edward Woodward would).
And it’s no surprise that Will Poulter should be cast as the antagonistic, insensitive provocateur (complete with pissing on sacred trees). William Jackson Harper, meanwhile, is the student so focussed on investigating rites and mores that we’re asked to believe he can’t see the wood for the trees; individually, wanting to ignore the unsettling circumstances might be seen as just about feasible, but collectively and cumulatively, it elicits derision. The equivalence Aster invites in the exchange regarding how the Hårga would see broader western values is all very well as a cool intellectual response, but doesn’t work in the face of the gut-punch shock tactics the director is simultaneously pulling.
As per Hereditary, Aster likes his visceral, sudden and high-impact grue, and his manner at times also leads to similar “Did he mean that to be funny?” moments (outside of those he clearly did). I’d be more inclined to crediting such dexterity, were he nimble and attentive to concise storytelling. It’s clear that, as with most of the more “art-house” inclined horror directors of recent years, he values mood and atmosphere over cheap shocks (well, for the most part anyway). Which is admirable, but the accompanying danger is that one may find oneself inclined towards becoming a bore, particularly if one’s style outreaches one’s substance.
There isn’t much in Midsommar that would set it on a par with the thematic impact of its progenitor The Wicker Man; Edward Woodward’s ingrained belief system is palpably intertwined with his fate and that of the heathens who entrap him. For Dani, it’s the rather arbitrary acceptance of a half-baked nouveau nature cult with all the concomitant trappings – sex, incest, sacrifice, runes, suspicious snacks and disembowelled bears, oh and inbred savants with a penchant for face-wearing – the kind of thing, with less pompous self-importance, that could be the stuff of any wrong-turn slasher.