Orla Smith reviews Ari Aster’s Midsommar, an exquisitely crafted horror with innovative sound design that unfortunately struggles to come together thematically.
Horror films often use enclosed spaces and nighttime shadows to create suspense, leaving us in fear of what might be lurking in the darkness. Ari Aster’s lauded feature debut, Hereditary, is a perfect example of this. Essentially a haunted house film, some of its most praised directorial flourishes made use of murky lighting: one shot sees Toni Collette’s character suspended on the ceiling, moving across the shadowy corner of a room. She’s almost imperceptible at the back of the frame, so when you finally notice her shifting in the darkness, the shock is genuinely unsettling.
Midsommar, Aster’s second feature, flips this formula on its head: this is “daytime horror,” set in a wide open field in Sweden, during the summer solstice on the hottest summer on record. This is the home of a cultish group of Swedes who are about to embark on a series of rituals that take place only once every 90 years. Our point of view character is Dani (Florence Pugh), an American backpacker who is half-heartedly tagging along with her inconsiderate boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), and his group of friends. The terror of anticipation comes not from shadows and sharp corners, but the fear of what these foreign rituals might escalate to, something which both we and Dani are completely in the dark about. When the violence and horror does inevitably ensue, there’s no darkness to cover up; we see everything in rich, bloody detail.
In both films, Aster depict relationships and character trauma extremely well. Hereditary is a film about a family in turmoil, and some of the most gripping scenes are simply family dinners, where we get to observe their taut dynamic. The best scene is well before anything supernatural occurs: an extended close up of protagonist Peter’s (Alex Wolff) face, drenched in sickening shock and disbelief, as he takes in his sister’s death. That moment shook me to the core, because his reaction is so realistic. He doesn’t scream or cry, completely refusing to accept the reality of what just happened because it’s too awful to bear.
In Midsommar, Aster intelligently establishes Dani’s and Christian’s toxic relationship early on in the film. I was surprised at how attuned a male filmmaker was to the specifically misogynistic way Christian and his friends treat Dani. One of Pugh’s best scenes in the film is her first, a phone call where Aster holds on a close up of her face, desperately trying to bite back tears, as she talks to Christian about the worrying suicidal email she had just received from her sister. The fact that she’s trying not to cry tells us that Dani doesn’t feel comfortable being emotional in front of her boyfriend — a first warning sign. She’s also constantly apologising for voicing her valid concerns to him; she feels like a burden because he treats her like one. He dismissively tells her there’s nothing to worry about and forgets that they had made plans that evening. All these little details build a portrait of a relationship that, while not explicitly abusive, is clearly toxic and unhealthy.
Where the film falls short is in maintaining its exploration of this relationship throughout its two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Aster’s intention seems to be to turn cultish rituals and their results into a metaphor for Dani dealing with and letting go of her toxic relationship. However, while the film starts strong in this regard, Aster gets distracted halfway through by the almost farcical insanity of the cult. We follow the couple as individuals — Dani’s grief and confusion, Christian’s fascination with the cult — but get little sense of their dynamic while in Sweden. Hereditary had a similar problem: an ambitious metaphor that almost but doesn’t quite come together, and ends up getting overshadowed by the carnival of horror surrounding it. Midsommar does revisit its thematic core in the final scene, where Aster makes a statement about where this couple ends up, but this conclusion which should be cathartic, feels slightly unearned. We haven’t seen the couple building to this point because the focus was shifted away from their relationship for most of the film.
However, Aster’s presentation of the cult and their rituals is so captivatingly vile that it’s easy to understand why he got distracted. The film is gorgeous to look at: there’s a pleasant pastel colour palette; the production design is immensely appealing; Aster’s shots are precisely composed and sometimes even satisfyingly symmetrical. Instances of (extremely graphic) gore are shot in the same manner, so the instinct to look away in fright is challenged by the desire to gaze at something beautiful. Often, these scenes are also accompanied by a soft, angelic, even rousing score, which encourages us to view violence through the same triumphant lens as the cult, who approach murder as an art, and death as a thing of beauty. Experiencing these conflicting instincts of revulsion and amazement at the same time is an unfamiliar, and unsettling feeling for the viewer.
While Midsommar may have thematic failings, as a piece of visceral cinema, it is exemplary, impressively provoking an extreme, physical reaction from his audience. The film’s sound design is a particular standout for how it subverts our expectations, forcing us to re-experience the violence we’re seeing in new ways, just when we think we know what to expect. Take one scene [Spoilers for the film’s first third ahead], in which we, along with the American tourists, are shocked and horrified by an elderly couple’s sudden, ritualistic suicide. The first elder jumps off a cliff and hits the ground with a loud, sickening crunch; we hear her skull shatter in revolting detail. When her husband jumps off the cliff after her, we expect to hear that same sound again, but just before he hits the ground, Aster cuts to a wide and drops the volume of the mix down so it’s as if we’re watching and listening from afar. Instead, the man hits the ground with a soft, muted thud, which is even more unsettling because it’s not what we’ve been set up to expect. In this scene, every time a body collides with the ground (or, later, with a mallet), the sound of breaking bones is different in the mix — louder, softer, different things emphasised. What we’re seeing and hearing is horrific enough as it is, but by forcing his audience to experience it in a new way each time, Aster truly unsettles us.