In director/writer Ari Aster’s new film Midsommar groundwork is put in place for a real crackerjack of a horror story; Solid and believable characters are carefully drawn out by the wunderkind director of last year’s movie, Hereditary. An atmosphere is created and cultivated that is at once both believable and slightly unsettling and there is a leisurely quality in the slow burn way events play out that are excruciating in their deliberate pacing, reminding this reviewer at least of a similar style of filmmaking on display in director Ti West’s The House of the Devil. And then it all sort of falls apart in a very self-conscious way leaving the viewer longing for a backend that did as much heavy lifting as the front.
Midsommar begins with one of the older horror film tropes: A group of graduate students decide to blow off some steam by going off on a backpacking trip through rural Sweden. The end goal is to spend some relaxation time in their friend Pelle’s very remote and isolated village. Among the backpackers is Dani (played to pitch note perfection by Florence Pugh) and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). Danni is battling with some serious mental health issues and as a result things are shaky with her boyfriend. All of this is presented in a manner of fact and frank way and unfolds slowly. Aster is nothing if not a director who knows the trick of any successful horror film is to make an audience care about the characters so that we are invested when the bad times come-a charging in. Here he paints characters we like not only for their virtues but also for their weaknesses, perhaps seeing some of ourselves in the lives being enacted on celluloid. The descent of the students into the wilds of Sweden is almost like a slow tumble into nightmare. There are shadows playing at the edges of the stark sunshine in this film and the effect of the director channeling Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown is akin to cold ice running down your back on a sweltering summer’s day: At first soothing and trancelike before turning just a little too cold and uncomfortable. “The whole forest was peopled with frightful sounds,” related Hawthorne in his short story, and he could just as easily be describing the first half of Midsommar. “ – the creaking of trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians; while sometimes the wind tolled like a distant church bell…” A spell is woven of ambiguity and doubt and watching this extended buildup play out so beautifully and creepily I couldn’t help but think that just perhaps I was watching a film that would be a standout in the much knocked horror genre, much like 2014’s It Follows.
The good things about Midsommar – characterization, a steady hand with pacing and atmosphere to spare quickly go out the window in the clunky second half, alas, and this is a shame. The students find Pelle’s village in the midst of a nine day Midsommar festival and the villagers themselves are more of a throwback cult with questionable motives. Soon, the students begin to disappear mysteriously until only Dani and Christian are left and the movie inches to the end of its two hour plus running time with all subtlety finally stripped and what we’re left with is a cross between Wrong Turn and The Wicker Man. The difference being that these two movies have a sure idea of what they are and ply their trade effectively as a result. Midsommar seems so identity confused that it misses the mark completely, ultimately leaving reviewers comparing it to more successful also-rans because there just isn’t enough substance at the end of the day for it to stand on its own merits.
Stay and watch Midsommar for its Hitchcockian first half, the part of the movie that does all of the heavy lifting and whispering of dark corners in the forest. Of this part of Midsommar, at least, Nathaniel Hawthorne would be quite enviable.