Midsommar (2019)

JULY 5, 2019

GENRE: CULT
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

One of the most trying things about doing this every day (when I did) was when I'd watch a movie that demanded or at least deserved a few days' thought before writing a review, something the "A Day" part of the concept didn't really allow for. Sure, I'd get backed up with reviews every now and then (usually on vacation, when I'd be watching every day but not finding time to write) but I would find it difficult to write about, say, Monday's movie on Friday, with three or four other movies watched in between, so I avoided it whenever possible. That's a thing of the past now, and so I'm glad I had a few days to think about Midsommar before writing about it, because I find I liked it more after chewing on some of its ideas, whereas if I wrote a review on Friday after watching it the tone would be less positive.

As with Ari Aster's previous movie Hereditary, the last act of Midsommar kind of lost me after pulling me in so deftly for its first hour or so, though here he (mostly) got me back. The plot is completely different (and easier to discuss without getting into spoiler territory, yay!) but the general tone of almost unbearable dread mixed with dark humor and surprisingly gruesome violence is very much in line with that one, so it's a fair comparison to make I think. Both films work best before their narratives start coming to a resolution, and while he has improved on it (in my opinion) here, I once again walked out thinking that if the back half was as strong as the front, we'd have an undeniable classic as opposed to a solid movie hampered by some hard to ignore missteps. Maybe the third time will be the charm?

The biggest difference between the two is that he is making it very clear who the "bad guy" is in this movie, before we even meet them in fact. The film opens on some establishing shots with a lovely choral hymn playing under it, which is interrupted by a ringing telephone - in other words, modern technology and those who use it are a disruption to the natural beauty of "the old ways". The plot concerns a man named Pelle who invites three of his fellow anthropology majors (slash bros) to visit his Swedish commune during a nine day annual festival that they hold there, and how one of them (Christian, played by Jack Treynor) has his girlfriend Dani (Florence Pugh) tag along. Christian actually wants to break up with her, but after she suffers a horrific family tragedy feels he can't do that to her just yet, and invites her mostly as a sort of polite gesture, assuming she won't actually go. Alas, she does, much to the dismay of his buds.

I found this conflict and awkward tension to be more compelling than the horror stuff, to be honest - and ultimately I realized that was the point, which I assume was missed by some of the film's detractors. After a million love triangle subplots in horror movies (particularly those in the "doomed vacationers" sub-genre), I was kind of blown away by how invested I got in their dysfunctional relationship, where Christian doesn't want to be with Dani anymore but feels like he can't actually be the one to break it off due to her recent tragedy. In turn, she knows that he isn't exactly fulfilling her needs but thinks it's something she needs to fix within herself; a pre-tragedy phone call to her otherwise unseen friend tells us that she worries she's too clingy for him, ignoring her friend's insistence that she should be able to find someone who gladly gives her that security. Be it a spouse or a platonic friend (or even a family member), we've all been in a situation where we keep a relationship on life support out of what remains of our affection for the other, rather than just let it die and use that energy elsewhere - Aster's script and the two actors' performances really nail that uncomfortable situation.

Now, would I watch a movie about that sans any horror stuff whatsoever? Maybe, but I probably wouldn't have chosen it over Toy Story 4 (or Dark Phoenix, which I suspect I have lost my last chance to see theatrically). Luckily, the plot practically guaranteed that their relationship issues would be the least of their worries, and here Aster makes the smart choice of practically spelling out that these Swedish folks who live in the middle of the woods, closed off from the rest of the world, might... well, sacrifice them at some point. Murals depicting their violent customs are in plain sight of both us and the main characters, they have buildings that no one can enter, photos are not allowed... and the locals make no effort to explain these things away as benign. So if you saw the trailer and (as I did) assumed it was all building toward a Wicker Man kind of thing - the good news is Aster knows you know that and doesn't bother to hide it, and then uses your familiarity with this sort of thing in amusing and unexpected ways.

Instead, the real mystery is whether or not Dani will finally realize Christian sucks and muster up the strength to dump him herself, or if he will start to genuinely appreciate her and rekindle their relationship (thanks or no thanks to the potential death of their friends and/or their own immediate danger). It's a long movie (2:27!) so it shouldn't surprise you that it takes a while for any traditional horror stuff to happen, save for a voluntary suicide of two town elders (they believe life ends at 72 and there's no point in slowly dying in a nursing home when you can choose to go out and help bring new life about with the sacrifice of your blood), so if you don't care about their relationship and bought your ticket hoping someone ends up being immolated to improve their crops, you're gonna be bored out of your mind. But as with his earlier film, Aster is able to convey a sense of dread almost immediately, thanks to the editing, music (Bobby Krlic's score accompanies my writing of this review, in fact), and production design - if you're the type that equates horror with lengthy chase scenes and jump sacres then you'll check out, but if "I am uncomfortable because I know something awful is going to happen" is your bag, the length shouldn't be much of an issue, and the payoffs are mostly worth it.

I say mostly because, well, it's still a long movie, and unless I am missing something, it could have easily been shorter. After a few days in the community (and having already seen some weird things), Christian decides he will focus his thesis project on the town and the festival, which rightfully angers his buddy Josh (William Jackson Harper) who was already using it as the topic for his own thesis and thinks Christian is simply piggybacking on the work he had already done. Not a bad subplot on its own, perhaps, but it isn't introduced until past the film's halfway point, and doesn't really serve any purpose beyond reminding us that Christian is a selfish ass. This results in a couple of scenes where both men talk to Pelle about how much/little they can write about, if the town elders will allow them access to things, etc - and there's no real payoff for it whatsoever. Josh's dedication to his project was well established before they even got there, whereas they barely even mention that Christian was on the same track, so why Aster chose to focus on this almost at the exact point where the average audience member might start getting restless just baffles me. Worse, it comes at the expense of time that could be spent on him and Dani (who have remarkably few moments together alone once they're at the commune), if not cut entirely to get them to their conclusion before we actually start forgetting about their troubles in the first place.

Also (minor spoiler, but I'll be vague with the details) after a week there, you'd think Dani and the others would be used to strange things and also that more often than not they're not too thrilled about what they see when they participate, so it doesn't really work at all when she insists on looking at what's going on behind closed doors out of nowhere. The place has like a dozen buildings that they rarely enter, so why she would hear some chanting coming from one of them and think anything of it doesn't quite track - it's just a quick/lazy way to get her some information she will need in the long run. Due to its importance I can't help but wish the script got her to that place in a more organic (or even accidental) way, instead of using an out of character moment to kick it off. The film's terrific closing sequence brings it back and makes it a win, but as I said, the movie would have been a total knockout if Aster had tightened and refined the things that built up to it.

Everything else works good to great though. The all daylight approach (the town only gets somewhat dark for a few hours at night) was an inspired choice, better to show off the (once again) terrific production design, particularly on the creepy-ass murals and odd buildings (the room they all sleep in is Suspiria-esque in blending fairy-tale aesthetics with unsettling oversized construction). The actors are also doing standout work; Pugh has some really tough moments to play and nails them all (her howls upon hearing the news about her family in the film's pre-title sequence are downright bone-chilling), and I must take a moment to appreciate Will Poulter's Mark, the most "bro"-y of the four men whose (often off-screen while the camera tracks someone else) remarks about their hosts and setting give the film most of its overt humor. He's just hoping to get laid in Sweden, and this along with his disregard for their customs (sometimes accidentally; of all the trees he could have used to pee on, he chose their sacred one) has him fulfilling a sort of horror movie cliche (someone even remarked he might be a misplaced Hostel franchise character), but he never crosses the line into being an insufferable asshole, which is important. Even Christian has his strong points; he's not a full blown "bad guy", he's just bad FOR HER, though your own history with such types will naturally have you judging him accordingly.

Once again, Aster has made a film that combines parts of many of the genre's classics while creating something very unique; there it was Rosemary's Baby, Don't Look Now, and Carrie, here it's Wicker Man*, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and a dash of The Shining. It's similar to what Tarantino does; walking a careful line of wearing influences on the sleeve without ever really feeling like a "ripoff" of any of those films, but they're serving very different masters. The frequent complaint about Hereditary (and now this one, though I've tuned out a lot so far as I didn't want my own thoughts clouded) is that the films aren't "scary" in the traditional sense, and I think that his influences - all of which are often featured on "scariest movie ever" kind of lists - make that distinction all the more apparent. I've said time and time again that I don't really get scared by horror movies anyway and just enjoy them for what they are, but I can recognize the moments that are meant to frighten the crowd, and these two films have those in very short supply (if anything, Hereditary might have more traditional scares).

But that's OK by me! Whereas in the earlier film I found it hard to connect to the family unit, I quickly got invested in Dani and Christian's unfortunate but common predicament (perhaps because a good friend of mine was in that kind of relationship for years and only recently got out of it - less dramatically than presented here I should stress), and thus didn't mind or really even notice that outside of the occasional burst of shocking/gruesome violence, it "wasn't scary". My few complaints about the film concern the script (or at least, the finished edit) forgetting about its central conflict to focus on a pointless one at an inopportune time and subsequent clumsy method of getting it back on track - not because of a lack of chase scenes or whatever. It will be a polarizing film, I think, but not for the reasons I initially suspected. And even if I hated it, the fact something so weird is once again being given a wide release (in the middle of the summer no less) makes me hopeful about the future of big screen horror. Aster has mentioned Blood on Satan's Claw as one of his folk horror influences - that's a pretty obscure movie to be a major inspiration for something playing next door to Spider-Man 7, so here's hoping A24 keeps taking these chances instead of sending them off to VOD.

What say you?

*Both of them, I think! I won't spoil any particulars but a certain animal plays a part in the 2006 version (not in the original) and is used for one of this film's most striking moments.

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