Apparently the horror genre needed to be saved. That’s what I keep hearing whenever people refer to modern era horror directors like Jordan Peele and Ari Aster. As if the genre has never truly been smart or introspective or about society at large. Of course the genre is mostly looked down upon as some cheap form of entertainment, meant to stimulate viscerally rather than intellectually. But consider this: are these new horror films really that much stronger than what we’ve gotten before, just because they’re more willing to be thunderously blunt about their thematic aspirations? I don’t think so. If anything, that goes against the whole point of a horror film. It’s too wild of a beast, the one film genre that thrives on establishing rules and then slowly breaking each and every single one along the way. The balance of clean and unclean ensures that the genre never works if it’s too methodical. Something nightmarish and aural like Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (1981) wouldn’t work for a second if there was a shred of logic involved, because logic is safe, and horror can’t be safe. So that’s my biggest issue with all this arthouse horror — it strains so hard to be about something that it forgets to actually be genuine horror.
Oh sure, sometimes they’re about disturbing things. And sure, these directors may purport that their brand of horror would never thrive on something so gauche as gore and nudity. But just because your film is about something inherently disturbing doesn’t mean you’re exploring it well. And the whole thing about gore and nudity is almost laughable when most of these arthouse horror films tend to only be scary or at least stimulating when they throw in that kind of stuff. Case in point, Midsommar, a “mature” and more “disturbing” horror film than your typical run-of-the-mill studio boilerplate. Only, the film isn’t scary. Only, the film does rely on cheap shock tactics. Only, the film does have gauche gore and nudity. I won’t deny that the film is aesthetically unique and that Ari Aster himself is an incredibly skillful director, but the film isn’t so much a horror film as an endurance test: how much of this can you muster before you need to tap out and move on to something worthwhile?
When I reviewed Aster’s Hereditary last summer, I think I was ultimately too kind towards it. Then, I was disappointed. Now, I realize it’s not very effective at all. While I might’ve enjoyed Midsommar a little bit more, if not for the refreshing change of scenery, the kind of sun-scorched horror that recalls genre-greats like Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), the truth of the matter is that it stems from the some issues as Hereditary. Both are technically impressive. Both are narratively empty. But unlike Hereditary, which was mostly just empty thematically, Midsommar steps into some thorny territory thematically. It makes the most sense if I break down the review by highlighting those three components (technical, narrative, and thematic), as they almost play into one another.
It’s technically impressive. If Hereditary made one thing very clear, it’s that Aster can direct. While I don’t think he’s a very good writer, watching the way he consistently uses the frame to do interesting things, or noting the many ways he loves to play with percolating, moving sound, it’s so very clear that Aster not only has an eye for directing but also has the authority and command of the screen in a way so few of his contemporaries do. It’s kind of a shame, because with the right material he’d be off to the races, but working from his own screenplays hasn’t been nearly as satisfying. Aster himself even said he’s not much of a horror guy, so maybe when he steps into another genre for a project down the road, maybe his avant-garde and commanding directing style will be put to better use.
But my, my, how beautiful Midsommar is. Setting a horror film entirely in the daylight is not a novel concept. There are stretches of Carl Theodor Dryer’s black-and-white Vampyr (1932) that were intentionally set during the day to make a play on the shadows cast by the sun. Most of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) happens during the day. But it is an interesting notion that we equate horror with darkness and night. Since we associate daylight as safe, it’s not surprising that sun-scorched scary movies can often be really effective, actively going against our expectations. Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography is appropriately bright and airy, almost looking angelic in certain shots when the light catches the edges of the frame in the right way. And he always finds somewhere interesting to put the camera, often creating uncomfortable, disorienting spaces that way.
The sound design might actually be even better. Aster really loves to play with levels and volumes, often having sound come in one way and then go out another. There’s a moment just before a character jumps from a cliff to their death where Aster builds tension and the sound bubbles up – and then completely cuts out, and all we can hear, slowly coming into focus, is Dani’s breathing. It’s disorienting and often done really well. And Bobby Krlic’s score is pretty fantastic, working well with that style of sound design. Even the Swedish commune is pretty richly devised, with Aster actually doing a fairly outstanding job of making the geography understandable (and it of course features the good kind of horror staples, like the one building you must never, never enter – which we’ll of course enter at some point). But…
It’s narratively empty. The film does have a reasonable set up. What’s most important here is that Dani (Florence Pugh) is invited on the the guys’ trip to Sweden, still trying to recover from the trauma of her family’s death, and joins them at the festival where a few of them plan to study the Swedish religious group’s ancient and very specific practices. After all, the festival only happens ninety or so years, although why that’s important or relevant is never explained. Actually, come to think of it, there are a lot of odd details presented throughout Midsommar that seem significant or at least worth paying attention to, but they either fade away into the ether, or simply work as a device that keeps the film moving along or gives an individual scene some tension. This was a similar problem in Hereditary, which started strong before it meandered and then had to sharply course-correct in the last ten minutes, almost shifting tones in order to achieve an ending that paid homage to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. It didn’t feel natural, and without a strong Second Act, which seems to be Aster’s kryptonite (and really, writing as a whole is not one of his strong suits), the explosion of violence and terror felt atonal (that is, thankfully, a problem that Midsommar does side step, only because the consistent daytime shenanigans create an overarching, established mood that Aster holds together very well).
Why Midsommar is as long as it is remains a total mystery. It’s basically a series of scenes where we’re subjected to ritual after ritual, watching as the drugged up Americans endure a way of life that’s foreign and haunting to them… even though nothing terribly compelling or dramatically altering happens for a good portion of the story. In fact, even the troublesome murder-suicide the film opens with ultimately goes nowhere, only really used to create some mostly ineffective moments of visual whiplash for Dani whenever she has a panic attack or succumbs to the effects of whichever drug she took last. And there’s even a really banal subplot about two characters having competing theses that gets way too much attention to be that underdeveloped. Simply put, nothing really happens. It’s no wonder the film can barely conjure up any real sense of tension or dread that consistently builds and grows throughout the story. Every time momentum is built, it’s severed as the film lumbers into the next scene. Even the major deaths are held off screen, a total horror film sin. Why is this necessary? It’s not as though the film builds mystery around it. None of the characters are active enough to investigate or be curious about what’s really going on with this cult. And the body count mostly racks up quickly, the film eager to just get rid of characters in quick succession without much thought or payoff.
Speaking of characters, they’re hardly more than talking heads or devices Aster uses to project his thematic aspirations upon. The protagonist, Dani, is one such example. It becomes blindingly clear that she’s not only the crux for Aster’s mirthless exploration of grief, but a stand-in for director Aster himself, as he contends with the effects of a bad relationship and how difficult it can be to let it go. On paper, all of this doesn’t sound terrible. But that’s just on paper. In execution, there’s almost nothing there. Dani’s grief is simply never developed beyond her attachment to the disturbing death of her family and it never evolves or goes beyond that. What any of it has to do with the Swedish commune, I don’t know. Worse, the relationship between Dani and Christian (Jack Reynor) feels equally like it’s just spinning wheels. Once again, you can’t fault the foundation: very rarely are relationships that feel like entrapment or bad enablement portrayed in films, much less a horror film. It’s clear Christian is a terrible boyfriend, and Dani feels weirdly beholden to him, as if he might be the only one who could help her overcome her great sorrow. Only, their relationship is so one-dimensional, it’s all too obvious to see where this is going. Christian is just a bad boyfriend constantly, and we never see any other dimension to the relationship, no hints at what might make Dani really believe this guy is worth hanging around with. If the film had allowed Christian to be an actual source of comfort along with being something just as bad for Dani, then this failed relationship angle that Aster loves to vaunt would’ve meant something.
Even more baffling is that Aster clearly identifies with Dani (and has confirmed this in various interviews). In some ways, that feels like Aster is shirking the responsibility shared between a couple, as if a relationship is simply not a two-way street. Consider Andrzej Žuławski’s horror film Possession (1981), which was also based on the director’s real-life relationship drama. While Žuławski clearly aligns most closely with the disturbed protagonist’s former husband, it’s done in a way that feels like Žuławski still has just as much empathy for the other half of the equation. He is not a lover scorned, but simply someone who understands that both sides have a fair perspective (and indeed, perspective and duality is important in that film, which is ultimately about doppelgängers, our other selves). Aster doesn’t really go deep into self-introspection with Dani, and while she’s acted with uncommon skill by a very talented Florence Pugh, the character is mostly lifeless, just reacting to what’s around her rather than ultimately being changed by it. Any other character is simply not worth talking about, since the film favors its experiential approach to storytelling (set pieces over narrative), and the character themselves are mostly defined by a singular trait they love to remind you about (once again, despite the material, Will Poulter also manages to stand out; Jack Reynor as Christian, however, simply feels stranded at sea). And then…
It’s thematically corrupt. This one’s tricky. As we’ve discussed in other articles, the whole point of a horror film is exploring the taboos of society. They’re meant to be entrenched with some pretty dark and disturbing stuff. But most horror films wouldn’t argue that any of that stuff is good and moral. In fact, the whole reason it disturbs us is because we know it’s abominable. And there are plenty of abominable things in Midsommar. The problem is that the film doesn’t treat them as such and gets a little confused as to how it should handle portraying some of its most horrific moments.
Firstly, the film is about grief. Only intermittently, of course. But it goes out of its way to really state that as its big thematic movement, with all the subtlety of a heavy wooden mallet to the face but without any of its effectiveness. The film hinges grief solely upon Dani, who discovers at the very beginning of the film that her sister has committed suicide and has killed her parents as well. Of course Aster shows the aftermath and continues to linger on it during many of the drug-induced hazes presented by the film. The biggest rub is that suicide feels fetishized here, not least because the film weirdly suggests Dani’s sister only acted this way because she had a mental disorder, but because these deaths just don’t end up meaning anything by the end of the film. And it’s not like Aster’s track record with suicide is any better past that moment. In the most harrowing segment of the film, two elderly commune members leap from a cliff to their death. We are told that this is a spiritual tradition that is meant to be a rite of passage rather than something horrible (as if suicide can be undone as something horrific). But if it were truly meant to be seen as a release, there’s something wrong about how Aster graphically shows the aftermath and then continues to show it. It’s effectively unnerving and more than especially gross, but to what end, I’m still not entirely sure.
And then there’s the end. I won’t spoil it with any explicit details. But there’s been plenty of talk about how the film’s final act of violence is somehow cathartic, that justice of a kind has been served, and not even ironically. The thing is, the taking of a life is never a just thing. Murder, after all, is a societal taboo. The film wants to make its conclusion something both horrific and liberating, but it’s simply wrong. There is nothing liberating about what happens in Midsommar, not least because the script doesn’t develop the plot, themes, or characters enough to get there, but also because the film slips into the uncanny valley of moral relativism in a way it’s not equipped to handle. Perhaps that comes down to the way Aster paints the Swedish commune, who do end up tricking the hapless American tourists (another welcome horror movie staple, although the execution here I’m not in love with). They’re strange and their practices are often glossed over as being born from ancient ideologies. We are supposed to fear them. And then we are supposed to be with them. The shift doesn’t work. Neither does the ending. Nor does anything thematic.
Horror films aren’t meant to be liberating, anyway. They’re meant to be sobering, in the hopes that we might open our eyes and realize that the lines between clean and unclean are not always as distinct as we want to believe. If we’re liberated by that revelation… Well, that’s a frightening thing indeed.