“Midsommar” was a cinematic failure

When I saw Ari Aster’s feature-length debut Hereditary in theaters, it was at 2pm on a weekday. The only people in the theater besides myself were a pair of high school-aged girls, one of whom, when the lights came up, gave probably the single greatest assessment of the film I’ve ever heard: “What the fuck am I supposed to tell my mom I just saw?”

What the fuck indeed? Hereditary was a horror movie whose jump scares could be counted on one hand (possibly zero hands) and had a runtime that stretched beyond two hours. If you tried to describe the plot to someone, it would sound quite a bit like most horror movies: demons, possession, disfigurement, and so on. But anyone who saw the film in theaters knows that there was an undeniable aura to the movie that made every line, every edit, and every shot something between enrapturing and sickening.

This aura is easily attributable to Aster’s style. Hereditary and his earlier shorts move at methodical paces that would border on plodding if they didn’t simultaneously engage so thoroughly. It’s an aura that absolutely floods the opening sequence of his most recent feature, Midsommar (spoilers follow), before suddenly disappearing — along with any sense of direction or intentionality the movie seemed to have.

Wow! Acting!

The movie seems to be, and has been confirmed to be by Aster in interviews, a horror movie about breakups. Florence Pugh’s performance is a masterstroke of trying to hold things together, failing, but seemingly coming out happier once letting go entirely. The trouble is that this is all she is asked to do in the film. Though both of Aster’s features focus on some degree of interfamilial grief, Midsommar immediately muddles its own considerations by shifting the focus from Pugh’s murdered parents and dead sister to her Great Value-brand boyfriend, played by Jack Reynor.

Whatever Midsommar is trying to say, it’s certainly saying it slowly, confusingly, and simple-mindedly. The movie’s nearly two-and-a-half hour length is not at all the issue; it’s its complete inability to settle on something resembling a focus or tone. While at first the movie’s only comedy comes from a pathetically underutilized Will Poulter’s general horniness and stupidity, Aster eventually centers the comedy in the film’s absurd spectacle of grotesques. Everything from the much-discussed sex scene to Pugh’s flower dress to the strange cloud of cotton upon which the village seer sits recieved confused laughs in my theater, and I doubt this was entirely unintentional.

Aster has expressed interest in directing a comedy, and Midsommar might very well have been his demo reel. Even if he doesn’t really have a strong comedic backbone, he does admittedly do a pretty great job of imitating the way young people speak which, in a world of cinematic comedy dominated equally by ancients and millionaires, is well over half the battle. The problem with comedy’s presence in Midsommar is, well, it sucks all of the Hereditary out of the film.

Apparently it’s not possible to wear a watch and give an engaging performance at the same time

I’m not saying all of Aster’s films should be like Hereditary; filmmakers that overly invest themselves in a single style are setting themselves up for irrelevancy down the line. What made Hereditary great was not its middling plot or sometimes overdone camerawork — it was the incredible tension created by the reality of what we were watching. Every main cast member gave a note-perfect performance that made the absolute tragedy of what followed feel like a slow-motion cut to the jugular. Even the film’s less acting-intensive moments were curated with lighting that spelled the possibility of danger and music that discouraged getting comfortable.

Midsommar abandons this tension for, as far as I can tell, nothing. Sophomoric psychedelic sequences and a handful of staid jokes turned what could have been a powerful consideration of romance in times of grief into a not-so-wet, not-so-hot Swedish summer. Aster’s abandonment of tonal consistency lays bare the films numerous plot holes, occasionally questionable acting choices, and lack of meaningful considerations. Girl and boy are together, boy sucks, girl doesn’t see this, then she does, then he dies.

It’s quite possible that the artistic considerations behind Hereditary are just as simple, but the film’s style just did an exceptional job of covering it up. The greatest bit of horror Aster has ever made me feel is the horror of watching Hereditary again — I’m afraid that I’ll realize the guy who made it is also the guy who made Midsommar.

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Haver of opinions. Lover of some things, hater of others.

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