Up-and-coming director Ari Aster’s first two films, Hereditary and Midsommar, juxtapose each other in that one is a masterclass in how to achieve cinematic greatness through subtlety while the other crosses the line into obscurity and pretentiousness. Hereditary keeps the audience invested throughout by generating a creepy and foreboding atmosphere and by giving the audience a plausible story while simultaneously dropping foreshadowing and symbolism throughout. Midsommar has far more symbolism than Hereditary does; it probably has more symbolism than any film of the last couple years if one looks deep enough. However, more symbolism and depth doesn’t immediately create a better film–sometimes it creates such a confusing and oddly hilarious experience that the audience stops caring about any of it by the halfway point.
The plot of Ari Aster’s Midsommar is very similar to the classic film The Wicker Man, except Aster sets his in northern Sweden. The audience is introduced to the character of Dani (Florence Pugh), a mid-20s girl who is still dealing with the fallout of a traumatic event that resulted in the loss of those close to her. She attempts to lean on her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) for comfort while embarking on a trip to a remote village in Sweden with his friends. Once they get there, they are welcomed with open arms by the villagers who are throwing a midsommar festival of sorts, but dark truths begin to reveal themselves as the vacation goes on.
Many fundamental problems line the structure of this film, but one is that it simply lacks any suspense or scares. This movie is labeled as being horror, but never once throughout the runtime did I care for the well-being of any of the characters enough to warrant tension during the more disturbing scenes. The one character I cared about was Dani, partly because she is the focus of the events that occur and mostly because Florence Pugh is astounding here. But even her character gets lost in all the odd traditions that make no sense to anybody who didn’t work on the set of the movie.
However, I do get that Aster was definitely not going for thrills and chills here, for his effort went into the foreshadowing and symbolism throughout. With Midsommar, he has overdosed on the symbolism to an extent that 75 percent of it will be lost on the typical audience member. At two hours and 25 minutes, this film is jam-packed with scenes including metaphorical paintings and ritualistic dancing, but Aster still seems to sacrifice character and audience accessibility. However, even during scenes that make no sense to any audience member, it is clear to see that his passion and talent for direction is there in spades. Unfortunately, this is not enough to give viewers a satisfying experience.
Midsommar does have a clear message by the end of the film, and this message is a poignant one that expresses the purging of those that are filling our lives with toxicity. Basically, Aster justifies the decision to dump that awful ex-boyfriend who couldn’t seem to appreciate anybody but himself. This message is interesting and worth noting, but I don’t believe it was worth sitting through the most uncomfortable sex scene since The Room and gratuitous close-ups of mangled corpses. I picked up on this theme during the first scene of the movie, and by the time the opening credits rolled I was relatively certain that it would become the underlying theme. There’s no reason to sit through something as odd and complex as this to understand that men can be complete assholes; I could watch five minutes of Fox News and appreciate that message.
It will be easy for someone who loved Midsommar to point out that I didn’t appreciate every subtle aspect of this film, and they would be completely right. But in all honesty, I don’t care enough about this story or this concept to go searching for meaning in each ritualistic dance sequence. Once the main characters arrived in the village, two main emotions drove my experience during these events: boredom and confusion to the point of laughter. I ached to do something active during much of Midsommar, especially during a three minute scene in which characters stare at each other while waiting to sit down for dinner. Near the tail end of the narrative Aster attempts to disturb the audience, and during every such sequence I found myself audibly laughing. Even during the final minutes of the film when the message is supposed to click in the brains of the audience, I thought it was funny. Maybe I’m just the terrible type of person that the movie is warning about or maybe I just have a sick sense of humor, but my entire audience was laughing along with me and it was clear none of them seemed affected by this absurdity.
Cinematography-wise, Midsommar is jaw-dropping and with every single shot it is clear to see that there is talent dripping off of this movie, but I just wish it had gone to better use. Pugh delivers one of the best performances of the year so far by manifesting grief palpably on screen, but her efforts feel wasted by this bad acid trip of a film. Supposedly, Aster was inspired to write Midsommar based on a breakup he had, which is made obvious by the end. If this is how Aster manifests his relationships, I truly feel for his ex who subconsciously knows they inspired the weirdest and most out-there movie of the last couple of years. Despite all this metaphor, the most prominent message I got from this film is that a work of literature can be full of creativity, symbolism, and social commentary while somehow still being hollow on the inside.
I give Midsommar a C.