Director: Ari Aster
Writer: Ari Aster
Cinematographer: Pawel Pogorzelski
Producer: Patrik Andersson and Lars Knudsen
by Jon Cvack
For some reason, every time I say I thought Hereditary was pretty good, people recite back that I must have hated the film. It’s one of the more divisive horror films of recent years; part of the art house horror movement that I think is as exciting as the Slasher, Universal Classic, and Sci-Fi Creature Feature movements. The VVitch (2015), It Follows (2014), It Comes at Night (2017), and Get Out (2017) are at the vanguard; ushering in a new era of exciting filmmakers. In terms of craft, Hereditary is at the very top, providing a psycho-horror/Satanic witchcraft hybrid.
The simple fact is that I just don’t like psychological horror all that much, and even though I know some tell me/demand I understand that there is no mental illness amongst any of the characters or within the story, and that it’s actually all real, there’s still the suggestion. As mentioned in my thoughts, my problem with psychological horror is analogous to surrealistic filmmaking or dream sequences - everything, no matter how fantastical, is permitted. So yes, if it’s all real, Hereditary’s images are terrifying. Maybe subsequent viewings will change my opinion as other films have (they didn’t and I’m more convinced we’re watching a story about severe schizophrenia). Point is, for something that so many hail as a work of art, many seem determined to provide an exact explanation. Maybe it’s the militancy that turned me off a bit. Or maybe I’m wrong.
Midsommar has one of the greatest cold openings to a horror film of all time. I’m tempted to say of this century. It is a master class in cinema; utilizing the camera and blocking interesting characters in ways that maximize the experience. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen the film, and the feeling remains; though the exact story has broken apart into a series of images - a long take of a college student Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) who suffers from the recent murder-suicide of her parents and sister. Her graduate student boyfriend Christian Hughes (Jack Reynor) and his friends and classmates are introduced moving from a painting down to the table, introducing them one by one before following Christian when he gets a call from Dani; the muted color blown apart when the film cuts to the flashback of firemen discovering Dani’s dead parents and sister, shot in a way that has been turned into mind. Each take was gentle and deliberate, completely immersing me within the story. The kind of situation where when the title credits pop, you forgot time altogether; having been so fully immersed.
I struggle to think of a film that has better shown such a specific moment in a romantic relationship. Dani is struggling mentally and Christian clearly has some feelings for her. Some I talked to said it was for the sex, but I don’t get the sense that Dani was interested all that much in sex as we never see them intimate. Through Aster’s mastery, it felt as though the two had a great and passionate year or so, and through a long slow demise - spawned by the tragedy - Christian realized he was no longer in love with her, while Dani seems to have shifted into complete dependence. Aster’s ability to maintain the subtlest amount of genuine care for another is what makes it work so effectively.
So on rocky terms, Dani discovers that Christian and his friends are going to Sweden for six weeks; somewhat to study a local festival called Midsommar in an ancestral commune of Hårga, partially to party and see Europe. Christian’s three friends Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) all prefer Christian finally end things with Dani, and with the film taking place a year after the opening, his credibility is shot. It all doesn’t stop Pelle from flirting with Dani, who again, is masterfully directed, appearing as a perfectly nice guy who maybe could appreciate Dani for who she is, yet with just a hint of creepiness, knowing it’s all a ruse, and he might just be as bad as his friends.
They head out and the tone shifts completely. The first film people compare it to is The Wickerman (1973), which I’m not really a fan of. I don’t hate the film, but when I think of putting on a horror film, I just have never been in the mood to return. The reason I think so few of these films exist is because they generally exist within the daytime and outside with sunny weather. The complete opposite of what is scary or frightening. It’s a challenge, but it’s not particularly overcome.
The five arrive outside the gates, with blue skies separated by Simpson clouds, and dozens of clusters of people sit all across the field as far as the eye can see. Pelle finds his old friends Connie (Ellora Torchia) and Simon (Archie Madekwe) who give them some shrooms. In a scene all too many of users have been in, Christian wants to take them while Dani is nervous. What gives it that extra zest is that Dani has a legitimate reason to probably not do hallucinogens with severe mental trauma and while on medication. It’s this point that raises my first mild criticism, in that it seems like - similar to Heredditary - the whole story could have easily been an entire fantasy brought on by a bad drug cocktail, and just as she initially took the shrooms and saw the grass going through her foot, she became immerse. I don’t think it’s legitimate, and perhaps this was Aster’s throwback to psychedelic cinema, but it shook the foundation a bit.
Any way, Dani agrees to take the shrooms and grass starts growing out of her foot and she has a freak out, leading her to walk off alone. For anyone that’s ever been curious or has done shrooms, this is the greatest depiction I’ve seen of the drug and capturing a freak out. I still don’t know how he achieved it, but Aster caught the drug’s essence by somehow making it appear as though any element on the screen was only twirling if you were looking at it. With my eyes bouncing from Dani to the trees, I kept thinking the effect was fading, only to look back and see the same.
They end up in the town and Christian and his friends nearly orgasm over the anthropological significance. The place is entirely run by blonde hair and fair skinned people, all decked out in white linen clothes and mostly friendly. They give the guests a tour of the complex and show them where they’re going to sleep. Christian or another friend ask about the lack of old people, told that old people “go away” after the age of 64.
Later, we meet a pair of old people who are the ceremony’s guests of honor. In a long scene, where unfortunately the tone begins to shift, we watch a long and drawn out sequence, culminating in the two senior citizens going to the top of a mountain, to then jump off and commit suicide. The woman has a clean death, though the husband only busted his legs, requiring them to bring in a gigantic hammer and crush his skull in. Dani, Christian and the others freak out, including Pelle’s friends. It’s defended as being part of the culture, the old people allegedly saw it as a privilege and elected to do it, and it allows them to sustain the colony by doing so.
Both the film and craft level off at this point. Expecting it to go far off the deep end, the story doesn’t get worse, it just doesn’t maintain its upward trajectory. Although Josh had always planned to write his thesis on the festival, Christian announces that he’s going to make it his thesis; pissing Josh off for reasons that I guess I understand but seem silly. Christian is a fairly dead beat student, so even if they were going to write on the same festival it doesn’t appear like there’s much competition. Secondly, although I’m not certain, I’m sure the professor would have final say, and very likely would prevent Christ from stealing Josh’s topic. Both my senior papers in college had to be pitched and developed by the professor. I can’t see graduate school being much different.
This feud further alienates Dani and perpetuates the tensions with Christian. Pelle approaches Dani once again, giving her an illustration for her birthday where she confesses that Christian had forgotten. Christian then tries to make things up in one of the cringiest scenes I’ve watched in a long time; trying to light birthday candles and singing an awkward Happy Birthday as Dani sees right through it. He then starts crushing on a local girl who he can’t take his eyes off of. Meanwhile, Pelle’s friend Connie freaks out when she learns her boyfriend Simon was driven home, unsure by who. Mark then accidentally pisses on a sacred tree and pisses off the rest of the commune.
All of these aren’t necessarily bad developments, but beyond Dani and Christian’s relationship, they all feel like easy tropes from a filmmaker that has reinvented so much. It felt like busy work to kill them off and get to the film’s final scene. It felt like so many of these could have gone in far more fucked up directions; again, leveling the film off prematurely rather than building up.
The final scene involves another brilliant shroom trip, as Dani plays a musical chair/tag hybrid, as she dances around with the other young women, all tripping out, doing their best to avoid falling down. Christian is lured by his local crush’s family and into a bizarre and unforgettable scene where women across the age spectrum sing and dance while he fucks his crush who lies on the ground. A stoned Dani wins the contest, receiving full honors in the shape of a flower dress, though soon discovers Christian who later is burned alive with two other commune members, his corpse already gutted and their skinned friends turned into scarecrows.
Another issue is that Jack Rynor - who plays Christian - looks strikingly similar to Chris Pratt; making the dramatic moments feel a bit off, as I found myself expecting some humor. The problem unfortunately peaking out during the dramatic ritual fucking scene. I’m not completely sure this wasn’t intentional.
The movie is a good horror film, but as others have said and similar to Hereditary, I’m not even sure it fits the horror category. On a Reddit AMA, Aster suggested he’s going to move on from horror for the time being. For a guy who is a radical cinephile, I cannot wait to see where he goes. Aside from some of the simpler tropes, Midsommar otherwise provides an engaging romantic story; serving as a fantastical catharsis, but leaves me wondering what Aster will explore beyond the genre.
BELOW: Another story about trauma - was it all a trip?
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