★★★ / ★★★★
Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” is further evidence that horror films need not unfold in the dark in order to be effective. Instead of hiding horrific elements and then throwing them at the audience at precisely the right moment, as generic jump scares would, the unsettling and curious images are almost always out in the open, exposed to the harsh light of day. It is a different horror picture, one for the patient viewer who enjoys taking a magnifying glass on a specimen and appreciating how one organ connects to another. It is not without a savage, ticklish sense of humor.
The plot revolves around four male graduate students (Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper) who plan a trip to Sweden to enjoy an idyllic retreat at a commune. They expected to get high and have a lot of sex with exotic women, but this part of their plan is foiled when Dani (Florence Pugh), Christian’s girlfriend, is invited out of pity following a recent family tragedy. Reynor and Pugh possess an interesting dynamic together exactly because they have nearly zero chemistry on top of their characters being romantically involved for the wrong reasons. In a way, the film can be seen through the scope of a drawn-out, twisted break-up. On this level, it is fresh.
The more uninspired choice would have been to jump directly in getting to know the isolated Swedish community and its leaders. But notice how the writer-director takes his time with the exposition. By laying out some of the more unpleasant details of Dani and Christian’s relationship first, we have an appreciation of the more vicious turn of events that occur later. We are not asked to take sides, but we are required to understand.
On the one hand, Dani comes across as needy and clingy even before the tragedy. We all have that one friend who treats everything as an emergency. Can we or should we blame Christian for wanting out of the relationship? On the other hand, at times Christian does not always have the “we” mindset despite being in a serious relationship. As a result, he may come across as detached or cold. I enjoyed that from the moment we meet these two, they are already living their lives. Like in effective dramas, we are tasked to navigate through motivations and psychologies instead of being spoon-fed.
The work commands an impressive eye for detail, from the arrangement of flowers on people’s heads, intriguing patterns on robes, strange figures on wallpapers, down to the guts of an animal sliced open—it dares us to look closer and examine every part of the subject. When a disgusting image is front and center, for instance, not one sharp note or noise is employed to distract us from what we are supposed to digest. Aster gives us the choice of what we want to do with the images. Stare unblinkingly or look away—it doesn’t matter because the representation does not change either way. That’s a powerful statement; it shows that the filmmaker is confident in what he puts forth.
Did I find the movie to be scary? Not particularly. I admired it, especially the creative ways it introduces familiar elements, and sometimes that’s enough. I think the reason is because in my culture, we have some bizarre traditions that may seem somewhat surprising or disturbing to outsiders. The rituals of the Swedish commune presented here are way more out there, certainly twisted and hyperbolic, truly within the realm of the horror genre. I guess I saw the story mainly from the perspective of a person of color who did not only grow up within the culture or perspective of white America. But that isn’t to suggest the picture’s goal is to present social commentary.