- Movie Rating -

Midsommar – The Director’s Cut (2019)

| August 26, 2019

The late, great horror auteur Wes Craven once noted that there are some directors whom you can sense are dangerous.  Their work is unpredictable, off the rails and, as Craven also noted, are willing to show you anything.  It is becoming abundantly clear that this description currently falls on Ari Aster, a 33-year-old horror director who made waves three years ago with Hereditary, a supernatural horror drama that was unlike anything that modern audiences had ever experienced.  It was creepy and weird and disturbing, employing a tone and mood reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick with a pallet of sickening shock and gore that are usually reserved for Japanese horror movies.  Even more than that, he creates in his audience a sense of stress, that the unpredictability of his scenes make you question whether or not you wish to proceed.  That doesn’t happen in modern American horror films.  Ever!

With his second effort, Aster has proven that this is going to be his wheelhouse.  Midsommar is just as weird and unsettling and stressful as Hereditary, maybe more so.  The previous film elicited the idea of what happens when family bonds become a supernatural nightmare.  Here he takes us into the unsettling world of a remote commune, born of ancient ritual and spirituality but wrapped up in centuries-old ancient traditions that are disturbing beyond words.

Our protagonists are a group of college kids.  Christian (Jack Reynor) and Dani (Florence Pugh) are dating, but there is tension between them.  She has just lost her entire family to a murder-suicide and he is emotionally distant and wants out of the relationship.  Straddling the fence of decency, Christian waits out the breakup due to her grief.  In order to put distance between them, he accepts the offer of an old friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to come to Sweden to his ancestral village to witness the Midsommar festivities which take place once every 90 years.  Along for the ride are his college roommates Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper), and ultimately through course of circumstance, Dani herself.

The invasion of American attitudes and entitlement on a culture steeped in tradition are not subtle as the group travels the Swedish countryside to a remote village hidden from the world and nestled somewhere in Hälsingland and occupied by the Hårga people, a culture totally enveloped in ancient traditions and ritual that the Western world write off as cultish.  Are they?  Well, sort of.  The people dress in white robes, wear floral wreaths on their heads and always seem onboard with whatever insane ritual seems sufficient to the spirits of the Earth.  They seem sufficiently anti-technology, still living as their people might have in about the 12th century.

Aster’s setting is key.  He overturns the idea that a horror film need take place in a gothic manor (or even with a real villain) and instead instills dread by the pastoral outdoor setting that seems vast, open, and yet seems closed-in and remote at the same time.  You can see just over the horizon the mountains and the far prairies wherein.  You would have to work to get away from this place.  If the bizarre rituals of the Hårga did inspire you to pack up and skedaddle, it would take an act of Congress and a military strategy to get you out of there.  We know something isn’t right here and if the protagonists were slightly older (they are, after all, impetuous college kids) they might have had a sense that something is amiss.  The ritualistic nature of the Hårga is unsettling from the moment we meet them and remains so right up till the end

The atmosphere is quaint and unsettling both at the same time.  The day-to-day operations of this small culture begin as misleadingly benign, but are countered by an unsettling musical score by The Haxan Cloak that reminds us of The Shining.  As observers the decor and wall-art of the huts and temples tell us what is going to happen.  When we see a bear in a cage and then later a drawing of a bear on fire we don’t have to stretch to put it together (although, in that case, we’re only half right).  By observation we know what will happen to these people in the third act, we just aren’t sure of the circumstances or what they mean.  What keeps things from being predictable is that Aster gives the four protagonists just enough motivation to help you understand their reasons for being there.  Dani has lost her family.  Christian took the trip to get distance from Dani.  Josh wants to use the commune as research for his college thesis.  And Josh is lured by the promise of promiscuous Swedish girls.

I am vague about revealing too much.  Suffice to say that things are off to a weird start with drinks served that lead into funky trips and daylight that seems to go on for days at a time.  The rituals of the Hårga get weirder and more bizarre and even stomach-churning as things progress.  Screening the film at The Sidewalk Film Festival, I saw the director’s cut which is 25 minutes longer then the one that played in theaters in July.  It’s far gorier than that edition, employing Aster’s tradition of never shying away from blood and guts – there is one ritual sacrifice that is so violent and gory that it will make you question whether you wish to proceed.  Most refreshingly, the characters are more fleshed out in this version, giving them more motivation and tying up some loose ends.

In many ways, Midsommar is the movie that we all wanted and missed with M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village.  Here is another remote place whose mysteries are revealed a little at a time.  But while Shyamalan’s trajectory was a twist ending at any cost, Aster progresses his film from logic and from the characters that he has established.  His film does have a twist ending of sorts, but the narrative isn’t dependent upon it.  Both Midsommar and Hereditary show that Aster isn’t interested in giving you your money’s worth.  He trusts that you came for an experience, and that’s what he’s willing to give you.

Is Midsommar a great film?  Well, just having seen it, I am inclined to say yes.  I give it four stars because it values me as a viewer with intelligence.  It is allowed to be unsettling in a way that our weak-kneed, mamby-pamby PG-13 American horror genre shies away from.  I can’t say that I’ll see it again anytime soon.  It was too unsettling and too stressful to jump back into right away.  I mean that as a supreme compliment.  With this film and Hereditary, I have encountered a filmmaker who is dangerous, one who is willing to go all the way with this visual style, and one who is willing to treat me like an intelligent adult.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2019) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized