There’s a lot to love about Ari Aster’s new film, Midsommar. Queen among those things is almost certainly the fantastic performance from Florence Pugh as a troubled college student in a dysfunctional relationship with a pretty pathetic boyfriend. She almost certainly thinks things can’t get much worse as she struggles with personal loss and a boyfriend that is emotionally distant and passive aggressive; one Swedish Midsommar folk festival later, she’ll learn she was wrong. I find it very admirable that Aster clearly wanted to do something completely different from Hereditary, his brilliant debut. He essentially copies Hereditary for about the first fifteen minutes of this movie with a gloomy, grimly disturbing opening and then he steps away into a bright sunlight that shines down on green fields and colorful flowers for the rest of the film’s running time. He basically reiterates that he did Hereditary and he could do it again if he wanted to and then goes off in a different direction. Unfortunately, I feel like the film just isn’t as great as Hereditary for a couple of reasons. Aster’s script is good in the way it nails the characters and their dynamics with each other. Aster is obviously getting at something about groups and communities in the way that he contrasts the small group of American students and the way they constantly bicker and belittle each other with the Swedish commune and the rigorous sense of ritual and commonality they all share. There’s something a little perverse about it, I suppose, the way Aster populates the group of protagonists with unlikable a-holes and gives the villagers a sense of harmony and peace. The former seems far more likely to be the group wreaking havoc and it’s a nice irony in a movie that’s kind of filled with nice little ironies.
The rest of the cast is pretty good, more or less. Vilhelm Blomgren is particularly good as a sweet-hearted student; his performance keeps the viewer off balance, which is also what he does to Pugh’s character. We’re never quite sure if he’s sincere in his affection for her or if he’s being manipulative. William Jackson Harper is very good in a supporting role. Will Poulter is good at being abrasive and kind of obnoxious, as he kind of always is honestly. Jack Reynor is an actor I’ve found quite a chameleon in roles as varied as an affable older brother in Sing Street, a psychopathic gangster in Free Fire and a foolish, bumbling cop in Detroit. He’s really, really good as the pathetic boyfriend for the first two hours or so of the movie, but when the movie starts to kind of go off the rails in that final half-hour, he’s a big reason why in my opinion. He ultimately kind of starts giving a very slapstick, kind of farcical performance. I’m not entirely sure if Reynor is just losing the plot and being bad or if Aster is, for some reason, directing him to take things in a more comedic direction. This film has quite a bit of comedy in it, another sharp contrast to the completely straight-faced Hereditary, and it works about half the time, so there’s a problem there. Likewise, the violence is kept mostly off screen in this film; there are disturbing images for certain, but the film lacks the visceral nature of Hereditary, except for one genuinely bravura sequence involving a ritual on a cliff edge. Aster is, I think, trying to get at something about emotional detachment; the villains of this film are downright sedate most of the time. What they do quite often is express emotion in a very ritualistic and stylized way. There’s a wonderful scene in which a group of women pull Pugh’s character out of a panic attack by essentially mirroring her breakdown back to her, pulling her into a communal experience. But the detachment does rather work against the horror movie tropes; this isn’t a bad thing entirely, but it is disappointing that there’s not a single scare in the movie. Still, Aster is trying something different and, even if it doesn’t succeed entirely, it’s very much a serious attempt a very different kind of horror movie than we usually see and when it works, it definitely works really well. Regardless of the flaws that crop up in the film’s final twenty to thirty minutes, it’s still a movie very much worth watching with a ton of interesting ideas, great character work and basically strong performances. It’s flawed, overly ambitious and a bit clumsy near the end, but it’s still a captivating, often hypnotic cinema experience. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – not entirely successful, especially in its tonal shifts, Aster’s second film is character-based, wonderfully performed & a hypnotic experiment that works far more often than it doesn’t. 3 ½ stars.