Ari Aster’s ‘Midsommar’ Channels a Daymare in a Poppy Field While Processing Grief

Just over four years ago, I lost my father in a freak accident. We did not have the best relationship, but it was one that had come a long way in the months immediately before. When you lose someone without notice, without warning, and seemingly without cause, it gnaws at you. Death can plunge you into despair, but they can also be the moments that illuminate what you want out of life. I started this blog, in part, because I needed to find a world beyond grief. My Dad and I would watch films, and while horror was certainly not one of his favorite genres, it was a place where we forged a genuine connection.

In the last two years, Ari Aster has emerged on the scene as a visionary director who approaches the rawness of grief in an uncompromising fashion. Aster hurls his characters into the darkest moments of their lives and examines the effects of these tragedies on their psyche. With Hereditary, and now Midsommar, his interrogation of the grieving process comes to different conclusions. In Midsommar, Aster crafts a triumphant film that showcases his talent as a creative mind. With a story that expands Aster’s abilities, both as a visual director and in the grandiosity of his storytelling, he steps up to meet the challenge of his second feature.

Midsommar follows Dani (Florence Pugh) in the aftermath of a family tragedy. Her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) feels stuck in the relationship. When his plan to travel to Sweden with his friends (Will PoulterWilliam Jackson Harper, and Vilhelm Blomgren) comes to light, he invites Dani along. However, once they arrive, they become drawn into the midsummer traditions of the town, which become violent and deadly.

Unlike Hereditary, which utilized shadows and darkness to create horrifying sequences, Midsommar draws from a color palette closer to The Wizard of Oz. The bursts of color and light draw an interesting parallel to Pugh’s journey versus the one taken by Toni Colette in his last film. Rather than being drawn into the darkness of her world, Pugh travels down a road of self-discovery in the sun-soaked North. By pushing her into emotionally manipulating and draining events, Aster puts Pugh through hell. Pugh’s performance sells each blow in spectacular fashion, and her realizations about the men who weigh her down are telegraphed with spectacular facial expressions.

Even scarier, Pugh’s journey through the film literally occurs during the light of day, playing into the metaphor of the events occurring in plain sight. The small town the students visit is expertly crafted, reminiscent of The Village without the weird twists at the end. The craftwork from the team, including standout production design, costumes, and score, help create the dissonance at play. We are otherized from this world thanks to our modern perspectives (as are our protagonists) by entering a fully immersive world surrounding them. They are literally out of place and out of time. By alienating our characters from the world they’ve entered, they are instantly in danger.

The rest of the cast gets some standout moments, Poulter’s Mark becoming a scene stealer. He gets to lean into his asshole persona that has slowly emerged in several of his characters. Poulter’s character will be easy to identify for many and his ignorance towards the world around him juxtaposes nicely with the rest of the Americans. Reynor and Jackson Harper each approach the events as sociologists, and for anyone who has ever written for academia, they are extremely relatable. Aster utilizes the absurdity of academic study as an excellent method to create exposition and strangely clinical ties to the town. Even as a death toll begins to mount, these characters are drawn further into the town’s rituals.

Ultimately, Aster crafts a breakup movie with the narrative. In particular, it speaks to those who have gone through intense emotional trauma while the other person in the relationship failed to understand the toll that can leave on someone. For someone going through the grieving process, support from the ones you love can make all the difference. Without that support, Dani’s life turns upside down.

Aster also takes a step back in terms of the scares. Rather than make turn Midsommar into a slasher, he takes a page out of the Rosemary’s Baby playbook. The mood of the film, as well as the psychological trauma getting to the characters, will make audiences uncomfortable. With almost a two and half hour runtime, the trauma piles on to an oppressive level. With each new development, Aster’s slowly turns up the tension and crescendos at the last possible moment.

While Hereditary took its characters down the darkest road possible, Midsommar creates a sense of healing. It’s odd that a horror film, with more than a half dozen deaths, can create this sensation. Pugh’s performance and Aster’s script allow the audience to buy this reading with some validity. After all, dealing with death does not create a one-note expression of grief. You experience joy, nostalgia, love, and of course sadness. The continuum of emotions one feels in what should be a dark moment is what makes us human. Without that, we would simply fall apart at our first run-in with death. However, we instead become complete individuals capable of reassessing our place in the world.

 

Midsommar is not a perfect film. At times, the other actors can fall flat, especially compared to the grueling performance that Pugh delivers. At other points, some of the images come off as redundant or simply there for style points. Yet these shortcomings do little to hurt the movie. Instead, the emotional throughlines of the film ring true.

For Dani, that reassessment of her life and its priorities results in some dark and gory moments. For me, I found that I had support from my friends, family, and long lost acquaintances. Aster’s exploration of grief and the ways it changes us makes Midsommar one of the stronger films of the year.  While some may balk at the runtime, Aster has earned his spot as one a developing auteur to watch. The heights of Midsommar feel reminiscent of Hereditary, and taking his full filmography into account, it is clear this guy knows how to tell a story. How you relate to it, well, that’s a different matter.

GRADE: (½)

What did you think of Midsommar? Does it succeed on its own merits? What do you think of it compared to Hereditary? Let us hear your thoughts in the comments below! 

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