The Dichotomy of Midsommar, The Breakout Horror Film Of The Summer (Or Sommar)
Midsommar, Ari Aster’s follow up to 2018’s horror classic, Hereditary, offers a new take on an old trope, but does it do enough to separate itself from his debut?
It sometimes feels disingenuous to compare a film to its predecessor, but I think Aster himself has set the framework for these comparisons. The two films are inextricably linked, both in themes and in horrific subject matter, but Midsommar also works very hard to differentiate itself from the typical horror film tropes. It is a film with very clear influences (hello Wicker Man), but still manages to throw some good ol’ fashioned original shock and awe our way.
It’s less of a pure horror movie than Hereditary was, but make no mistake, there’s no lack of utterly disturbing moments. Trust me. And also trust the couple that was sitting next to me in the theater. To think that two individuals could say the phrase, “What even IS this movie?” so many times (out loud and NOT whispering) was pretty staggering. But, at the same time, I get it. There was some STUFF in this movie.
The initial plot isn’t anything too out of the ordinary. Dumb, belligerent Americans in places they’re not supposed to be is a tried and true horror trope. Maybe there’s something cathartic about watching American dumdums die horrible deaths? Who knows. What makes Midsommar different from those other movies (Hostel, etc.) is that it’s not JUST about Americans being Americans. It dives into so many other ideas not previously explored in the horror genre.
The prologue introduces us to the protagonist, Dani (played brilliantly by Florence Pugh), as she deals with one of the worst things imaginable in the loss of her whole family. This is the closest Midsommar ever gets to Hereditary. One of the things that made Aster’s debut so heart wrenching and real was how the film dealt with the themes of loss and grief. That was what Hereditary based it’s whole plot around, and what really drove the narrative.
Midsommar, thankfully, looks at that theme from a slightly different perspective. Yes, we are introduced to this horrible tragedy from the get go, but it doesn’t really ever come back up. Not in the sense that you’d expect, at least. We, as the audience, view everything that happens to Dani through the filter of her tragedy, but that isn’t what the movie is about necessarily. It’s just one aspect of a film that throws a lot of different stuff into the pot. Potentially too much, considering the original cut Aster made was around four hours long. Despite the intimidating two and a half hour runtime, Midsommar (to its credit) is never boring. It’s really an exercise to see how long a human body can remain fully tensed up. By the time the credits finally rolled, I felt like I should have had a six pack, but unfortunately that was not the case. C’est la vie.
Christian (played by Jack Reynor) is also introduced in this prologue, as Dani’s shitty boyfriend that she has been with far too long. There’s a conversation between the two of them early on that is just as excruciating as any of the brutal violence in the movie, and that’s a testament to the writer/director himself. Ari Aster has said that Midsommar is as much a breakup movie as it is a horror movie, and it shows. Amidst all the intensity and horror, there are moments of Dani and Christian’s relationship that feel as real and as down to earth as any other film. It’s definitely a unique combination of ideas.
As Dani accompanies Christian and his PhD grad student friends to a commune in Sweden to celebrate Midsommar, things clearly start to take a turn into the more traditional anxiety of horror films. But thanks to that masterful prologue, everything that happens is seen through the eyes of Dani and her trauma, which makes for a chillingly effective movie watching experience.
What’s most impressive, possibly, is the fact that this is a horror movie that takes place almost entirely during the day time. That is never an easy task, and Aster succeeds by slowly building the tension and unease to an almost unbearable level, all in full sight. He never uses darkness to hide anything (and I mean anything) from the audience, and I have to begrudgingly respect him for such a bold choice. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see an uptick in brightly lit horror movies over the next couple of years, considering how striking Midsommar is.
One aspect where Midsommar differs greatly to Hereditary is in its humor. I can’t remember a single moment where laughing felt at all appropriate during Hereditary, but there were multiple moments throughout Midsommar that made the audience actually laugh out loud. It really is surprisingly funny, and the actors help accentuate the well-written dialogue with solid deliveries. Later on in the movie, there were other moments that elicited some uncomfortable laughter from the audience, myself included. Those later moments of laughter were more of a coping mechanism for the fever dream material we were seeing on screen. Sometimes, laughter is all an audience has, so I don’t fault anyone for the occasional chuckle, especially considering the images they were seeing. I accepted a long time ago that not everyone is a desensitized robot like myself.
The thing that excites me the most about Ari Aster’s first two films is that I can never seem to stop thinking about them. Whether I’m trying to wrap my brain around the plot or process my own thoughts on loss and grief, something about these films just resonates with me. That makes me incredibly excited (and a little uneasy) to see what kind of existential dread Aster is going to make me feel next.
Oh yeah, and thanks to Midsommar, I have no plans to try psychedelic drugs any time soon, so to any friends who want to trip on a commune in Sweden, I’ll have to pass. Sorry (not sorry).