If Ari Aster‘s debut “Hereditary” was too dark, along comes his follow up, “Midsommar,” yet another tale of misery and woe. But this time around, sun-soaked landscapes mask the danger that lurks for a group of outsiders.
Florence Pugh is Dani, a grad student whose life falls apart in the wake of horrific tragedy. Her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is also a grad student who was preparing to end their years-long relationship before circumstances and guilt compelled him to stay. Dani makes endless excuses for Christian’s often dismissive, disinterested behavior. He knows it’s time to end this and always nods when his friends say as much, but never follows through. They stay together out of habit rather than out of any lingering affinity for one another.
The opening scenes of “Midsommar” highlight Dani’s insecurities and Christian’s unwillingness to assert himself. His weakness leads to inadvertently inviting her to accompany him and his friends on a trip to Sweden. Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) are also grad students studying anthropology. Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) is an international student who invites them to visit his village and observe his community’s traditional Midsommar festivities.
Florence Pugh continues to make her mark as a rising star in the industry. Dani is the most fully developed character in this story and Pugh breathes life into her. She is a young woman constantly on the verge of a panic attack, never comfortable in any situation or place, and Pugh conveys that with the confidence and skill of a veteran. If not for her performance, this movie would be almost unwatchable.
Jack Reynor is serviceable as Christian. He reaches the level of infuriating where his lack of drive and passion causes contention not only with his girlfriend but with his friends too. Reynor taps into the right combination of mumbling pseudo-intellectual and cute college guy. His habit of taking everything in stride seems like a good quality, but it conceals a bigger problem. This film particularly succeeds in the area of Christian’s personality flaws. Thematic and plot issues aside, Christian’s inability or unwillingness to acknowledge when something is wrong becomes a common thread. This trait leads to real consequences and serves the overall story in ways other aspects never do.
Ari Aster, who wrote the screenplay in addition to directing, makes attempts to create interesting supporting characters. But Mark feels like a garden variety frat boy who has no use for anything that doesn’t satisfy his immediate wants. The only reason his character is at all unique is entirely due to Poulter’s ability to make irritability both funny and relatable. Josh is slightly more rounded than Mark since it is his own dissertation on European mid-summer customs that takes them all to Sweden in the first place. This sets up a potentially interesting dichotomy between him and Christian, but like most aspects of “Midsommar,” it never gets the chance to grow.
When the Americans finally arrive in Pelle’s town, the Midsommar festivities are already underway. The costumes, flowers and hallucinogenic teas welcome them into a sense of wonder and false security. Pelle narrates some of the events to his guests, but never explains much of anything.
This is one of the main frustrations with “Midsommar.” For a story that relies so heavily on ritual and rite, there is no effort to explain or contextualize anything. One half-hearted conversation between Josh and a local elder describes the reason for some of their symbology, but the discussion itself is disjointed and limited and ultimately leads nowhere. They also discuss Reuben, a mentally and physically disabled teenager who is apparently something of an oracle to the community. But Reuben receives only a passing mention and an occasional flash of the camera to remind us that he’s present. His purpose is lost entirely if it ever truly existed in the first place.
The result of all these missing details is something that feels like one empty gesture after another. A local woman teaches Dani how to move a glass when making a toast, but never explains why. The village treasures include a sacred fallen tree, tapestries, bizarre drawings and runes. Are there reasons? Is there a purpose? Does anything mean anything at all? At best, Aster chose to keep those details to himself, which is a disservice to the story. At worst, it is all as meaningless as it appears. This is the kind of film that prompts fans to proclaim that detractors “didn’t get it.” They will attempt to explain it. And they will be right because any interpretation is correct. When there are no answers, no one is wrong.
Much like “Hereditary,” this film starts out bleak and only gets darker. Ari Aster seems intent on crafting a directorial calling card that begins each film by putting his main characters in the most tragic circumstances imaginable and then spending the rest of the time proving things can always be worse. He revels in the grotesque and delights in misery. Because of his gruesome and provocative imagery, some would call him an auteur. But as a horror film, “Midsommar” is more concerned with being gross than with building fear. It is a curiosity, two hours of wondering where this is all going, only to reach an ending that doesn’t tell us. A good film doesn’t need to provide all the answers, but it should offer a few. At the very least, it should offer enough information for us to interpret and draw some kind of conclusion.
“Midsommar” is a disappointing experience that hides its shortcomings with pretty pastels and a lot of gore.