All the horror film fans I have met in the last few months have been saying the same thing: Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” is so fucked up, and they mean this as the highest compliment. Just the name of it is enough to make those who watched it open their eyes ever so wide sound like they are still gasping even months after sitting through it. It reminds me of when I saw Lars Von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves” with my parents, and we are still trying to recover from that cinematic experience twenty years later.
Well, as I write this, I have still not seen “Hereditary,” but I have just seen Aster’s follow up, “Midsommar,” and it was his director’s cut which I got to view. Even before it ended, I found it to be the WTF movie of 2019, and I do not think there will be another released before the end of the year which will equal it in terms of sheer unease. Now I have to watch “Hereditary” as I now wonder which one will seem more messed up than the other. After hearing people attempt to describe “Hereditary” to me before losing their breath, I feel like I have perfect understanding of why they reacted the way they did.
The first fifteen minutes of “Midsommar” is a short film of sorts as we are introduced to graduate students Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor). They are romantically involved, but it does not take long at all to see the cracks in their relationship. Dani confesses to a friend how she is not sure Christian is opening up enough to her, and Christian’s friends keep convincing him to break up with her as he has wanted to for some time. However, when a terrible tragedy suddenly rocks Dani’s already fragile mental state which she treats with Ativan, Christian stays by her side out of a sense of obligation and to not leave out in a wilderness of pain and misery.
Cut to several months later, and Dani is still trying to recover. Christian, although begrudgingly so, invites her to come along with him and some fellow graduate students on a trip to Sweden. Their Swedish friend, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), has invited them to his ancestral commune, the Harga, in Hälsingland, where they can attend a midsummer celebration. The big selling point of this trip is that the specific iteration of this celebration only occurs every ninety years, so it is essentially the equivalent of Haley’s Comet; you miss it now, you may never get another chance.
Aster makes no secret of how “Midsommar” was inspired by, among other films, “The Wicker Man,” and this is even if you have heard of that cult classic but have not seen it. Our main characters are introduced into a place far removed from modern living if not completely removed from technology (someone is always looking for a WIFI signal). Everyone is dressed in the same white clothes, they live off the land and make their own food and crops, and everything seems so beautiful and serene. Of course, looks are always deceiving and, in this story’s case, they are infinitely deceiving.
“Midsommar” has been described as a folk horror film, and Aster himself has called it a “break up movie.” What I admired was how he takes his time with the story to where he does not rush anything at all, and this makes the experience of viewing it all the more enthralling. Even when this loving commune later proves to be a pagan cult which is not always kind to outsiders, you, like the main characters, are not quick to find an escape even if there is a working car nearby. If this were being released by a studio other than A24, I imagine the executives would be asking Aster, “Can you get them to the commune any faster? How about by page 3?
Has this kind of film been made before? Yes, many times, but even as I thought I knew what would happen next, Aster lovingly teases us with our knowledge of the genre to where my expectations were gleefully subverted. While he doesn’t do anything new, he does make this kind of motion picture uniquely his own to where my eyes were pinned to the screen from start to finish.
Aster plays us like a piano throughout as he gives us certain moments which appear to imply what will happen to at least one or more of these characters to where we can only imagine what fate they will bring upon themselves. For instance, the girls in the commune play a game called “skin the fool.” Need I say more?
In addition, Aster has the good fortune of working with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski and composer Bobby Krlic, both of whom help make his vision all the more beautiful and deeply haunting. Pogorzelski makes everything here seem so inviting, and this is even after some commune members celebrate the end of life in a most painful way which, if it does not kill them, will involve some Gaspar Noe smashing of the “Irreversible” kind. As for Krlic, he creates a deeply atmosphere music score which sucks us right into the beauty and horror of all we witness. Even if we want to tear ourselves away, there is something which keeps us tightly locked in.
I am not really familiar with Florence Pugh’s work, but she does what many English actors have done before and will do again in the future, play an American character with an American accent. But more importantly, she captures Dani’s fragile mental state perfectly to where all the panic attacks we see her experiencing feel frightening in their authenticity. Trust me, anyone who has experienced any kind of panic attack will tell you this is the real deal, and Pugh inhabits this character fully and fearlessly.
A good deal of credit also goes to Jack Reynor as he boldly makes Christian into one of the most thoughtless boyfriends ever in cinematic history. Upon witnessing a ritual suicide, Christian first reacts in horror, then he decides he wants to do his graduate thesis on the commune despite one of his fellow classmates already planning to do so. Reynor also allows himself to be completely nude during and after one of the most deranged sex scenes ever filmed (trust me, you have to see it to believe it), and he did this after watching films like Wes Craven’s “The Last House on the Left” in which the female characters were made to disrobe, run around nude and be humiliated. The way Reynor saw it, the time had long since come where a male character suffered similar indignations. Well done Mr. Reynor, well done!
“Midsommar” is not your typical horror film in which you jump out of your seat every five minutes. Aster is instead more interested in getting under your skin, and just when you think he cannot get any deeper under it, he does. There was a lot of laughter at the screening I went to, but this should be expected. In reacting to what is shown onscreen, you cannot help but laugh as it is a good way to deal with the more deranged moments this film has to offer. Furthermore, I think Aster wanted us to laugh because even he saw just how fucked up this screenplay could get even as he wrote it. I myself have come to love wonderfully unnerving films as they offer me I kind of release the average studio movie never does, and I am glad we have A24 around to release something like this which freely goes against what is considered mainstream entertainment.
I am now eager to see where Aster will go from here as “Midsommar” as the work of someone who has seen hundreds of horror movies and has since taken what he learned and created one which is all his own. And yes, I will take the time to watch “Hereditary” as well. In a time when Hollywood is still all too frightened by originality, I am eager to see more movies like this made. For crying out loud, it has a Cinemascore rating of a C+. What more evidence do you need to show this is a daring and unique motion picture experience?
I’m just glad one of the characters found their smile again before the screen went to black. Seeing that was a major relief.