clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Ari Aster’s Pagan Poetry

The ‘Hereditary’ director makes a quick return to screens with ‘Midsommar,’ a long, strange, sun-baked trip about grief, community, ritual, and modern love 

A24/Ringer illustration

We know what Ari Aster did last summer. The 32-year-old writer-director got a lot of hype—and a little backlash—for his debut feature, Hereditary, a family (psycho)drama threaded like razor wire through the tropes of a supernatural thriller. A critical hit that alienated a fair chunk of the mainstream audience lured to the theater by all those good reviews (and that nevertheless earned $80 million worldwide on a $9 million budget), Hereditary’s juxtaposition of recognizable domestic tensions with hallucinatory freakouts and go-for-the-jugular gore suggested the arrival of a ruthless new horror movie talent. (The Ringer’s Rob Harvilla got scared just skimming the Wikipedia plot summary.)

The climax in particular cinched the idea of an emergent genre specialist. Despite the fact that, at the moment of truth, Aster bent the knee to Roman Polanski (specifically, the paranoiac, all-of-them-witches ending of Rosemary’s Baby), the triumphal tableaux of a kid being crowned king of his own private cult could also be taken, however coincidentally, as a bit of self-portraiture. Hereditary’s happy-unhappy ending is also a beginning: Its closing image suggests someone coming into his own.

Aster’s interest in rituals and their double-edged potential for self-actualization is very much present in his new movie Midsommar, which arrives ahead of schedule. Aster’s fellow “elevated horror” standard-bearer Robert Eggers took nearly five years to follow up his breakout hit, The Witch (the Robert Pattinson–starring ghost story The Lighthouse was the talk of Cannes in May). After laboring for years to get Hereditary produced, and being hastily anointed as a possible new master of horror, Aster went into a near-instantaneous turnaround.

The short gap between Hereditary and Midsommar probably accounts for some of their narrative and thematic overlap. The similarities are clear, and if anything, Midsommar is even more likely to frustrate and even infuriate viewers than its predecessor—including, I’m guessing, more than a few who were able to get on Hereditary’s wavelength. That’s not necessarily a put-down: If one definition of vital genre filmmaking is that it discombobulates our responses, then Midsommar—alternately solemn and funny, as well as precise and sprawling, gory and boring, predictable and startling, derivative and strikingly original—is the equivalent of a hand-stitched “Mission: Accomplished” banner spelled out in runic alphabet.

The key dichotomy in Midsommar’s network of contradictions is the one between humor and horror, which also informs many of the genre classics that Aster admires. This is obviously true of Rosemary’s Baby—probably Aster’s biggest influence—but also The Shining, Don’t Look Now, and The Wicker Man, all of which involve some degree of mordant comedy. The Wicker Man is a particularly inescapable reference point, even if the barrage of tweets calling Midsommar a rip-off after its trailer dropped were premature. As with Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (another movie Aster has clearly absorbed), the relationship here to The Wicker Man is both superficial—Hippies! In frocks! Dancing!—and more thoughtfully wrought.

Beneath its array of pagan masks and its perfunctory missing-persons-case plotline, Robin Hardy’s 1973 classic is about the collision between value systems: modern society, embodied by Edward Woodward’s big-city cop Sergeant Howie, versus the beatific, old-school Scottish islanders who become his hosts. It’s also a tale pitting fundamentalist Christianity against Celtic mysticism. The irony of having the pious policeman, as devoted to spreading the Good Word as he is to his duty, get rooked into becoming the kind of sacrificial victim long deified and vilified within his own faith—burned alive for the community’s sins like a medieval witch while reciting the 23rd psalm—is simply delicious.

If Midsommar works—and that’s a big if—it’s because Aster is similarly committed to the dynamics of culture clash, as well as the possibility that scariness and satire are not exclusive. In his savage New Yorker pan of Midsommar, Richard Brody called Aster’s movie “grotesque,” a put-down that is also apt enough. Midsommar fulfills the true, literary definition of “grotesque,” which dictates that humor and horror, working in tandem, can heighten one another. This is not the same thing as comic relief, like, for example, the Lil Rel Howery scenes in Get Out, which serve to break the tension at regular intervals (and to comment on the plot, Mystery Science Theatre 3000–style, on the audience’s behalf). Nor is it a case of lapsing into full-on parody, as in Scream and its other late-’90s imitators. It’s about mixing tones at a molecular level. One of Aster’s gifts is for conceiving sequences in which the terrible thing that’s happening is also hilarious. Think about how Hereditary’s most shocking passage—if you’ve seen the movie, you know the one, it involves a speeding car and a highwayside telephone pole—is staged as a piece of abjectly vicious slapstick, unfathomable tragedy as a live-action Road Runner cartoon.

Midsommar has its own obscene Looney Tunes moment. It happens near the midpoint of the movie, when the characters who serve as the film’s nominal heroes—a group of U.S. grad students who’ve decamped to Hälsingland in Sweden to attend a secretive summer solstice festival—observe a ceremony centered on the village’s two oldest inhabitants, who greet their peers from the top of a dizzyingly tall stone cliff. No spoilers, unless you consider Newton’s laws of gravity to be a spoiler: The scene’s inevitable trajectory generates a uniquely deadpan sort of dread, perversely literalizing the idea of a “jump scare,” while all but daring us to look away. What’s funny is the contrast between the Americans’ immediate, visceral revulsion and their hosts’ nonplussed good humor. In addition to skewering the concept of politically correct cultural relativism—a liberal mind-set somewhere in between “when in Rome” and “live and let die”—Aster is dropping the gauntlet so hard that it squooshes all over the place and in our faces. Isn’t this what his characters came for? Isn’t this what we came for?

This theme of punitive retribution—of people getting what they deserve—runs through Midsommar, which, like Hereditary, is perhaps best described as two movies in one. Beyond the obvious comparisons to The Wicker Man, its main scenario is deliberately reminiscent of films from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Hostel: Fish out of water get shot in a barrel. At the same time, it is also very explicitly a study of a couple on the rocks. Of the four Eurotripping New Yorkers who make up its main ensemble, two—Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor)—are four years into a claustrophobically codependent relationship defined more by mutual resentment and resignation than any romantic feelings. The spark is gone; these are the ashes.

Aster is not an austere dramatist, and he stacks the deck with a stage magician’s bravado during Midsommar’s authentically nightmarish prologue. As a self-contained short film, it’s brilliantly designed, acted, and edited—the equal of Jordan Peele’s bravura curtain-raiser in Us—but risks taking things over the top before they’ve even begun. The film opens in the middle of one of what seems to be a pattern of panic attacks for Dani, who has taken it upon herself to be a sounding board—and psychological whipping post—for her suicidal sister. She in turn clings like a vine to Jack, whose classmates-slash-pals Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) take pains to remind him he’s supposed to be a boyfriend and not a therapist.

It doesn’t take more than a few minutes of screen time for Aster to orchestrate a catastrophe that takes Dani to (and maybe past) her breaking point, and that also blocks any real opportunity for Christian to detangle himself from her orbit. In the space of a single phone call, she’s destroyed, and he’s trapped. Guiltily, he invites Dani to join him and his pals on their long-planned trip to Sweden, which undercuts the original boys-will-be-boys vibe (and its subtext of untethered sexual adventures among a population of Nordic blonds). But Dani’s inclusion doesn’t necessarily make her feel better. She knows that she’s a fourth wheel—fifth, actually, counting Swedish exchange student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) who’s the one with the out-of-town hookup—but she can’t bear, under the circumstances, to be left behind.

For Midsommar’s play with point-of-view to be effective, Pugh has to shoulder a heavy load, not unlike Toni Collette in Hereditary. When Aster plants his camera square in his star’s face for an unbroken, three-minute take in the opening section—a panicked phone conversation delivered entirely in close-up—Pugh shows us, with beguiling transparency, how hard Dani is working to hold things together. The potential dubiousness of a male writer-director adopting the perspective of a traumatized young woman—and taking the measure of her partner’s possible toxicity through her eyes—is offset by the strength of Pugh’s acting. Reynor, meanwhile, has a comparatively smaller but significantly trickier part: He has to suggest Christian’s ambivalence toward a partner who, on some level, he loves without liking very much, and he has to do it without making his character an obvious villain. Christian is a lot less obnoxious, for example, than Poulter’s Mark, a caricature of ugly Americanism who goes so far as to actually piss on the local customs he’s observing—an act of vandalism begging for a response.

The absolute certainty that Dani, Christian, Mark, and the other invitees on Pelle’s retreat are going to end up grist for the mill (yes, there’s a mill, it’s that kind of movie) is not something that Aster tries to disguise: It’s sort of audacious how unconcerned Midsommar is with unfolding like a Very Special episode of Scooby-Doo. Instead, and in keeping with Aster’s fascination with the pomp and ceremony of rituals, it leans into the predictability of the narrative, hoping that the details (gory and otherwise) of the commune are diverting enough to keep us from tuning out.

In truth, I’m not sure that his gambit fully pays off, but there’s so much intention in everything he’s doing—starting with the epic 140-minute run time, which seems perverse given how obvious the direction of the story seems to be—that the line between ambition and folly blurs and swirls together. In Hereditary, there were enough scares to keep viewers juiced amid all the drawn-out atmospherics, but Midsommar isn’t scary, exactly: Its shocking moments have a slowed down, tranced-out quality. If Hereditary’s rhythm resembled a cardiac monitor spiking all over the place, Midsommar pulses like a sine wave.

This slowness has its pros and cons: It can make some of the dialogue seem clumsy, and it can draw out the symbolism of certain images and exchanges so that they become lugubriously heavy. It can also, depending on the spectator’s tolerance for this kind of hypnotic style, generate the same kind of suggestible, hallucinatory state as the various chemicals ingested by the characters across the film’s duration. The drug use in Midsommar is constant and spotlighted: Dani is introduced popping Ativan for anxiety and keeps borrowing sleeping pills from Josh, while the commune is a veritable fairyland of controlled substances (not all of which are administered voluntarily). Aster has described Midsommar as “The Wizard of Oz for perverts,” and while it’s rarely good practice to let a filmmaker define the parameters of their work, the allusion makes sense. The Wizard of Oz’s dark-side-of-the-moon trippiness is a matter of pop-cultural record. It’s also one of the great fables about subconscious wish fulfillment—and that’s the aspect of Oz that Aster seems to be chasing via the dream logic of Midsommar’s deeply stoned final act.

On a purely technical level, Midsommar is as accomplished as Hereditary while cultivating its own distinct look: a sunblind brightness awash in gauzy pastels. There is some of the same geometric precision in cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography, but instead of Hereditary’s concentric style—frames within frames and miniatures within miniatures, all keyed to the theme of characters inhabited by invading forces—the emphasis in Midsommar is on wide-open spaces and high-ceilinged structures, surrounded and filled with verdant greenery that, à la the haunted forest in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, appears to sway and undulate of its own accord. There are no shadows here, no dark corners with lurking ghosts: Everything is visible, or hiding in plain sight. The superlative production design, meanwhile, encodes narrative information (and several foreboding clues) into the various books, tapestries, and paintings on display. If there is one thing that Aster has taken from The Shining, it’s the idea that decor can tell its own story, and that the background can become foreground in an effective way.

Another way to say what I just said is that Midsommar is a movie where the wallpaper is as interesting—if not more so—as the action in front of it. Is Aster’s film so carefully made to support its myriad intricate mysteries, or is the rigorous style being applied to mask a basic lack of originality? And, if the comic side of the movie is not, in fact, deliberate—if the laughter provoked in the home stretch is aimed at the filmmaker rather than his apparent targets—then Midsommar might start to look as misbegotten as Luca Guadagnino’s recent and mostly unbearable remake of Suspiria. No doubt that this will be the response for some people, and by making the movie in the way he has, Aster has left himself open to all kinds of skepticism. The myth of the auteur working stubbornly on their own terms is a seductive one, and not always in a good way: A lot of bad movies are “uncompromising.” It’s more often the case, though, that when skill gets harnessed to principle, a film is worth seeing—and debating. As fun as Midsommar may prove to argue about with others, it’s also a movie that can divide you against yourself.