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Friday, July 05, 2019

Midsommar

When filmmaker Ari Aster made his debut with last summer's paranormal thriller, Hereditary, many hailed him as a new voice in horror, and described the film as being kind of brilliant.  I found a lot to admire about the film, especially the lead performance by Toni Collette, which should have been recognized at Award Season.  However, I also felt the movie flew off the rails during the third act, and just was going for weird for the sake of being weird.  Still, I admired quite a lot about the film, and was excited for what he would do next. 

His follow up, Midsommar, has just as much to admire, and I am recommending it.  However, once again, Aster shows signs of weakness in an overall strong film.  This time, he is making a slow burn thriller where the creepiness comes from the bizarre nature of a commune that seems in touch with nature and the "old ways" of traditions, but is actually holding a dark secret.  Again, Aster shows a natural talent for building tension, even when he surrounds his characters in sun-drenched fields and flowers.  He does this by using camera angles that are intentionally just a bit odd and off, creating a sense of unnaturalness.  He also uses a lot of tight shots, making the wide open spaces of the film's setting just as claustrophobic as your standard haunted house setting.  Just like in his last film, he shows a real mastery of building suspense and technique, and I applaud him.

Where he goes wrong this time is by stretching a very thin story to almost the breaking point with a nearly two and a half hour running time.  Aster starts out with a perfectly tense and winding story that immediately grabs our attention with a knock out opening sequence involving a family tragedy that is a masterclass of minimal storytelling.  And when the characters do arrive at the commune, again, he winds up his audience very well by giving subtle hints that things are not quite as peaceful as they seem, and that there is a cult-like mentality at play.  Even when the movie starts resorting to gore and shock imagery in a sequence involving a ceremony, it's effective and disturbing, instead of simply being gross.  I was completely invested, and ready to praise this as one of the better films of the year.  But, little by little, I found the film's spell slipping on me.  The movie starts dragging its feet just a little, and there are even a few moments that are total missteps and earn bad laughs from the audience.  Here is a movie that carries itself with total confidence for about 90 minutes or so, and then little by little starts to slip up.

Midsommar tells the story of Dani (Florence Pugh, who made such a big impression earlier this year in Fighting with My Family, and continues to do so here), a college student who suffers a personal tragedy when her bipolar sister takes her own life, as well as the life of their parents.  The way that this nightmarish scenario is depicted is deeply effective and emotional, playing up both the tragedy and horror of the situation brilliantly.  Dani's boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), has been contemplating a break up with her, but decides to stick it out in order to support her.  Six months later, it is now summer, and they are still together, though Dani is obviously still haunted by her trauma.  Christian is planning a month-long trip to Sweden with some of his college friends, and brings Dani along with him.  With his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Pelle (Wilhelm Blomgren), they will head to a commune where Pelle originally hails from in order to celebrate the summer solstice.

After they arrive, there is a lot of music and dancing, as well as hallucinogenic drugs being freely passed around.  The movie plays up the reactions of the Americans (as well as a young British couple who are also visiting the commune) to the customs of their locals, as well as how the locals react to the strangers.  This starts out with simple misunderstandings, but things quickly escalate and turn more sinister, and even sexual.  Ari Aster is clearly paying more than a little bit of tribute to 1973's The Wicker Man here, which is nothing new, as Aster paid respect to a number of horror classics with his last film.  Midsommar becomes drenched with paranoia as the bizarre incidents keep on escalating, and certain characters start mysteriously disappearing.  If there's one thing this movie knows how to do, it's how to put us into an unnerved and intrigued state, at least for a time.

I think this is a case of a movie needing another trip through editing, as there are some serious pacing issues that drag down the last hour or so of the film.  To be fair, the entire movie is fairly slow, and is in no hurry to get to where it's going.  However, the first half has a kind of intriguing mystery, plus the oddness of the commune itself, to carry the audience through.  As the pieces start falling into place, and we start waiting for the movie to wrap itself up, it kind of seems to be dragging its feet.  Aster starts lingering on some scenes for far longer than he should, and the energy that was once there starts to slip away.  I wouldn't say that I was bored, but I did find myself checking my watch a lot more, and wanting things to move along a bit quicker. 

I do believe that Ari Aster is extremely talented, and he clearly has a truly great movie in him.  He's not there yet, but he should keep on trying.  There's a lot to like in Midsommar, and even more to get excited about.  At the very least, this movie does have some unforgettable images and visuals, which is more than I can say of a lot of the competition playing this summer.

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