While I was waiting for my screening of Midsommar to start I checked Twitter to pass the time. One of the last things I read before the movie started was someone saying that they’d loved Hereditary (director Ari Aster’s previous feature) but that the Midsommar script, which leaked online in March, was terrible.
Not the best thing to read before a movie starts, but as the film itself would go on to make abundantly clear, reading a script without seeing the movie can be like reading the lyrics to a song without the music. How much do you get from “Hey now you’re an all-star (6x)” on the page? That goes double for an Ari Aster movie, where, say, Toni Collette’s face says so much more than words ever could. Aster’s singularly bold depictions of the horrific and his novel compositions do far more for his films than plotting alone. In an era when virtually every shot has been done, it’s rare that Aster’s ever feel like a reference or an homage or a copy.
That’s doubly impressive in Midsommar, which manages to feel entirely like a movie unto itself even as it’s so heavily influenced by Wicker Man that it basically qualifies as “a riff on Wicker Man.” If there was pressure to repeat Hereditary, Aster seems to have consciously gone the opposite direction, trading claustrophobic interiors for gauzy vistas and saturated florals.
Florence Pugh plays Dani, and in so many ways she’s an atypical horror heroine — neither damsel nor ingenue nor Joss Whedonian hot tough girl. She’s more like the girl next to you wearing a hoodie to a morning lecture. Pugh’s palpable humanity is peculiarly useful for Aster, in that he can put her in the most bizarre and extreme situations and she still seems familiar.
Dani’s mentally ill sister has just committed suicide, in particularly traumatic fashion (not spoiling much here, this truly is just the set up), and now her shitty boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor, joining the pantheon of all-time cinematic shitty boyfriends) is treating Dani both as a fragile egg to be protected and an obligation to be avoided. She only finds out that he’s been planning a trip to Sweden with his grad school buddies two weeks before he’s set to leave. She bluffs, saying it’s cool if he goes, she just wanted to know about it. He bluffs, saying she’s totally invited if she wants to come. She calls his bluff and accepts, he calls hers and says “wonderful!”, and they’re both left equally unhappy. It’s such a pitch-perfect depiction of dysfunctional early 20s relationships and makes a wonderful foreground for the weirdness to come. They all (Dani, Christian, and Christian’s three grad school friends, one a beatific Swede) pack off to Sweden for some kind of nine-day solstice festival, which promises abundant drugs and willing Nordic women. What could go wrong!
Hereditary was famously beloved by critics and savaged by “audiences.” I hate this dichotomy, as if critics don’t count as audiences, or as if people polled by Cinemascore or voting on RottenTomatoes or Metacritic represent an accurate cross-section of a film’s true audience. All that aside, it’s easy to predict the same divide or worse for Midsommar.
Before the film, Aster and his cast even seemed to pre-apologize for what we were about to see. “I wrote this during a break-up,” Aster said. “…I’m better now.”
Some of the other actors added “It’s an experience, best of luck,” and “Enjoy your punishment.”
Why all the handwringing?
I suspect it’s because moviegoers tend to fall into one of two main categories: puzzle solvers and novelty seekers. Aster’s films can be tough on the former, and I suspect many horror fanatics are of the puzzle solver persuasion. Aster’s idea of horror is decidedly not an escape room, the filmmaker laying out the clues and letting us figure it all out before the final credits. Aster doesn’t even seem particularly concerned with being “figured out.” His talent is in transporting us, immersing us in an entirely new kind of reality and then once we’ve bought in, gradually ratcheting up the weirdness until it feels like a lucid dream. He has an extraordinary knack for building that dawning sense that there are hidden layers to reality that we just never noticed before.
Suffice it to say, it’s a type of filmmaking that’s catnip for novelty-seekers, of which I count myself one. Which offers in turn that peculiarly flattering sense that the film was made just for you. Punishment? I spent most of Midsommar giggling. That’s just my natural reaction to the way Aster meticulously stretches reality right up to the breaking point and then plucks at it like a banjo string. Just when you think you’ve found your footing he’ll throw in something completely out of left field, like “Whoa, check out the bear.” And sure enough…
Midsommar has some obvious influences, Wicker Man above all but also other terror-of-the-midnight-sun and sunny day horror films like Insomnia and It Follows. The wonder of it is that even as it’s unabashedly toying with the Wicker Man folk horror format it manages to feel wholly original.
Could it have developed its characters a bit more or relied less on sudden eruptions of graphic gore? Perhaps, but the gore-filled me with glee. Every shot in Midsommar is such a feast for the senses that you’re happy to go wherever it takes you — a sunshine-and-flowers-filled waking nightmare.