Friday, July 12, 2019

Review: "Midsommar" is sure to be another brilliant, polarizing sleeper hit for Ari Aster

Midsommar Review

Last year, Ari Aster stomped onto the scene with "Hereditary," an independent horror movie that took the world by storm and became a bold statement for Aster as a filmmaker and artist. This year, he returns with "Midsommar," another horror movie. One thing is evidently clear about Aster now that I've seen "Midsommar" and being a fan of "Hereditary," he is going to be joining a list of directors which includes Nicolas Winding Refn, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Thomas Anderson and Stanley Kubrick (may he rest in peace), where he's making movies that aren't for the whole audience. In fact, much like the directors I listed above, the audience seems secondary to the cinematic process for Aster. The horror genre is already a fairly uninviting one, simply because not everybody out there likes being scared. There are many different sides to the horror genre too though, and "Midsommar" is definitely not what people might expect.

I read and reviewed the script back in March. I remember feeling that Aster was going to have another hit on hands and it solidified him as a storyteller. I also knew that, much like his "Hereditary," this was going to divide audiences. Already on my social media accounts and looking through YouTube videos, its clear that "Midsommar" polarized audiences. The script I read was two years old  and the thing I was scared of the most was that the final movie would change dramatically and lose some of its power. You may not even realize how often that happens, things change and a lot can happen to a movie within two years. Hell, Steven Spielberg changed the entire meaning of "Minority Report," simply by lifting one sentence of dialogue out of the movie's ending. The smallest details can change your movie, for better or for worse.

Thankfully, the "Midsommar" playing in theaters right now is pretty much the same as the script. There are a couple of minor changes to how we learn information and certain tweaks to things, but essentially its the same as the script. Thank god for that because it made "Midsommar" quite a frightening experience for me. There are a couple things from the script I wished we could have seen, and a scene in particular that may have explained one detail of the movie a little bit better. But Aster has already announced a director's cut so maybe I will get to see it when that is released. "Midsommar" ended up being exactly what I wanted it to be, a slow-burn, dreadful experience, filled with mood and atmosphere. 

If you haven't read the script or have only seen previews, the story is fairly simple. Dani (Florence Pugh) is a girl suffering from severe anxiety, she's got a boyfriend named Christian (Jack Reynor) who she's kinda-sorta on the outs with. She's got some trouble with her family. Christian is ready to break up with Dani when her sister commits a murder-suicide, killing herself and her parents. Christian then remains with her. By chance, Dani finds out that Christian and his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) are going with Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to Pelle's Swedish village for a midsummer festival, which is rarely held. While Dani and Christian bicker about Dani not knowing Christian was going, he awkwardly invites her along. Seeing it as an avenue to get away, she agrees. 

There is definitely a familiarity that sets in when Dani and the group settle in Hasingland for the festival. If you've seen plenty of cult horror movies, you know everything looks stunning, and beautiful and everybody is so happy and chipper. Everybody starts taking drugs and going on trips and it all looks like a fun free-for-all. But slowly and surely, dread starts to set in. Something bad is going to happen to someone, right? Someone is going to get sacrificed, right? I have heard some people complain about predictability in "Midsommar," and yes, once it really gets going, its not surprising how things end up. If you are fan of movies like "The Wicker Man" or the criminally underrated "The Sacrament" or the segment from "V/H/S 2" called Safe Haven, you know something bad is going to happen in paradise. But that's the cult horror genre. Slasher movies are all pretty much alike but do Ghostface, Leatherface, Freddy Kruger and Jason Voorhees have lots in common? Not really. You could stack up several movies in one genre and call them predictable, but its the smaller details that shine through. Deeply analyzing "Midsommar," "The Wicker Man," "The Sacrament" and "Safe Haven" would prove that all four of those movies are very different from each other in many ways.

As "The Wicker Man" was a police story with a shocking ending, "Midsommar" is a horror version of a bad break-up. Christian is constantly looking for an out with Dani and when tragedy strikes her life, it makes it difficult for Christian to find an out. They barely seem interested in each other at the Swedish commune and Christian even forgets Dani's birthday. After reading the script and seeing the movie, Christian is definitely a jerk. He represents something toxic for Dani, something she needs to rid herself of and she'll be much better. 

Not only that but the movie is very much about community and family. Dani loses her family, and while in a toxic relationship with Christian, life seems very dour at the moment. What "Midsommar" proudly proclaims is that whether your close to your family, or your best friends are considered your family, or both, you need community. You need a core group of people you can count on to be there for you and to love you. If you don't have that, you are adrift and you may not come back from it in a positive way. Realizing you've found your people is one of the most uplifting experiences one can actually have. And yes, "Midsommar" is definitely the horror version of that too, but its incredibly important to the movie.

One thing I can agree with dissenters on is the pacing. When I initially read the script in March, the script did not read like it was a long movie, and at two hours and thirty minutes, you definitely feel that timing. Yes, I like slow burn horror, its some of my favorite kind of horror. But there is definitely a difference between Making The Audience Feel The Dread and Boring The Audience To Tears. I think Aster walks between those two differences like a tightrope sometimes in this movie. Sometimes the movie is on the verge of getting away from him.

In "Hereditary," Toni Collette gave a masterful performance, and the only bad thing that came out of that is she was not nominated for an Oscar for her incredible work. Florence Pugh gives a incredible performance here as well. She drives the whole thing. She makes you feel her anxiety and uncertainty. She sells the idea of the fear and confusion she's feeling from the strange cult she is watching unfold in front her eyes. Its a grand performance, something that can make somebody into a star and now I am really excited to see what she has to offer when she shows up in the "Black Widow" prequel Marvel is making. Poulter and Harper do good work as Christian's friends, giving life to two characters who seem fairly one-dimensional on the page. I also have to say that Blomgrend was absolutely perfect as Pelle, there is a subtly charming/ subtly creepy vibe Pelle is supposed to have and I think Blomgrend focused that energy well. The commune at Hasingland, it is full of charmingly creepy people, and the Swedish actors chosen here all do impeccable work. 

The cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski is breathtaking, making "Midsommar" the most gorgeous horror movie in recent memory. It certainly makes "Midsommar" a bit unique in the way that horror is all seen throughout the day. Even in "The Wicker Man," much of the strange and off-putting material in that movie happened at night. There is something extra shocking about seeing stuff happen in the sunshine and Aster uses that to his advantage.

Perhaps one day Ari Aster will have his own personal "Drive" and he'll make something so profound that it sticks with all audiences. For right now, Aster is making the type of horror that I buy into. All of sudden it seems something woke up in the bowels of Hollywood and people are making horror movies strictly for me. I don't like most of the found footage stuff. I don't find gore and blood scary. I don't find teenagers who can't act dying in grotesque ways scary. My favorite kind of horror involves tension, mood, atmosphere. I like the feeling that nothing is what it seems. There is some stuff in this movie that happens off-screen, and while some may not like that they didn't get to see what happened to a particular character, that stuff scares me more when handled right. When a director makes my head spin imagining the fate of a character, that's scary to me. My expectations were incredibly high for this one, and it just plain worked for me. But I can understand why it doesn't work for everyone. But knowing cult horror and folk horror, I don't know how it could have went any other way. You know the kind of horror you like, so if this sounds up your alley, take the ride. Aster has proven he's one of the greats.

FINAL GRADE: A

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