Midsommar (2019) by Ari Aster
Review by Michael O’Malley
At least among Cinematary contributors, I think I was alone in receiving last year’s Hereditary as one of the best films of 2018 and one of the best horror movies of the whole decade. So imagine my excitement queueing up to see Midsommar, writer/director Ari Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary. And well…this ain’t Hereditary.
I suspect that will make all the Aster haters out there breathe a sigh of relief, but make no mistake: Midsommar bears many of Aster’s fingerprints as defined by Hereditary – busily ostentatious cinematic style, borderline pornographic shots of brutal violence, two-hour-plus runtime, long takes consisting solely of a character wailing in despair, a long dramatic streak fixated on emotionally tortured metaphors, a somewhat sadistic use of shocking family death as a cog in those metaphors (the last of which, for the record, I think is handled considerably less effectively in Midsommar than in Hereditary). And yet, on the other hand, you have some stark differences. Hereditary’s expansive Utah is gone, and in its place is a commune in the northern reaches of Sweden, where a troupe of American grad students have travelled, half for vacation, half for thesis research; the dour, shadowy cinematography has been switched out for a scouringly bright aesthetic illuminated by the all-hours midsummer Scandinavian sun; the lacerated and precise (though debatably problematic) commentary on mental illness is replaced by a lumpy analogy linking grief and toxic relationships to Swedish paganism. Not all of this is bad, and a bunch of it is very good. But at least for me, it’s a decidedly less tidy, less compelling overall package than Aster’s previous film. With respect to those who already lobbed the phrase at Hereditary, Midsommar is a hot mess.
And yet, Midsommar’s strangest and messiest divergence from Hereditary is also one of this movie’s best features: Midsommar isn’t just scary; it’s also really freaking funny. Hereditary had its moments of wicked comedy, but that film is more marked by a bleak intensity than by a sense of humor. Midsommar, on the other hand, is consistently laugh-out-loud hilarious, and in my screening at least, the theater was swept by waves of giggles and often eruptions of straight-up guffaws. It’s not unusual for a horror movie – especially one focusing on irritating young adults – to indulge in some humor early on, usually in the form of quippy dialogue or exaggerated reactions, and even novice horror fans have probably gotten a few grim chuckles out of a particularly deserved kill. But Midsommar goes far beyond those usual notes of comedy. There’s a whole gamut of humor here that stretches from the film’s opening minutes to its closing shot. Per the horror trope, the movie definitely dips into the “obnoxious young adults doing stupid stuff” well – Will Poulter in particular plays a deliriously terrible grad school bro, whose character exists seemingly exclusively for audience amusement at the comically awful lines that come from his open mouth and at the mid-film sequence involving his urinating on a sacred tree, and it’s no spoiler that he gets one of the film’s more grisly deaths. We’re also treated to some great reactions, such as one character’s intentionally stilted delivery of “That was really shocking!” following what are probably the most explicitly gory deaths in the movie – all standard horror humor notes. But my theater also got in plenty of laughs of the “what the hell is happening?” variety, such as the ones received in reaction to Florence Pugh’s completely dour expression as she sits clothed in the largest flower dress you’ve ever seen, or when one of the characters finds himself involuntarily wearing the skin of a bear and looking like a particularly morose (and slightly bloody) theme park mascot. And then there are the moments that are just unambiguous broad comedy: a character wondering aloud if he just ingested the public hairs of another character; Poulter’s character committing the aforementioned pissing-on-tree incident; a woman, uh, lending a helping hand from behind to a man having ritual sex; a man running around fully nude trying to escape scary pagan things, which a friend of mine rightly noted might have been appropriately set to the Benny Hill Show theme. The moments keep piling up over the movie’s nearly 2.5 hours, and these pieces combined with the fact that even the standard notes of horror humor are a bit louder here than in your garden-variety horror flick lead to an incontrovertible conclusion that, based on Hereditary, I never thought I’d say about an Ari Aster-directed film: Midsommar is not just a horror movie, it is a horror-comedy.
When I use the term “horror-comedy,” the films that probably spring most readily to mind are movies like The Cabin in the Woods or Scream or Zombieland or Evil Dead 2, and those are indisputably high water marks of the hybrid genre. But part of what makes Midsommar such an experience is that it doesn’t quite feel like any of these movies. The traditional mark of a horror-comedy (if we’re ruling out movies that are just parodies, like Young Frankenstein) is the recognition that horror and comedy both have the same basic setup-punchline/adrenaline rush-catharsis structure and the unexpected substitution of one genre’s component parts for another. Take, for example, one of the great laugh-out-loud moments in Zombieland, where Bill Murray in zombie makeup sneaks up on two unsuspecting characters and is promptly and fatally shot; the gunshot punchline comes with all the suddenness of a jump-scare kill in, say, Friday the 13th, only this time it’s funny because of the fact of Bill Murray and the line deliveries around it. This is the usual horror-comedy mode. When the comedy comes, the horror sits out, and when the horror comes, the comedy takes a break. To invoke another famous horror-comedy, by the time we get the merman payoff in The Cabin in the Woods, scares are long gone. Horror and comedy tag-team, and the fun comes from the fact that something that is usually scary is no longer scary but funny, or vice-versa.
But what Midsommar does is something different, and that’s part of what makes this movie exciting despite its shortfalls. Instead of turning off the horror to make room for comedy, Midsommar has comedy and horror coexist in the same space. The guy appears in the bear suit in the context of a supremely unnerving scene of ritual sacrifice; the “that was really shocking!” line comes in the context of a conversation in which Florence Pugh’s character is traumatized in a very tangible and disturbing way. At almost every moment of laughter in my theater, there was something onscreen that also could have appropriately provoked gasps. I’m not alone in having noticed this; Slate ran a whole article with the headline “Is It OK to Laugh at Midsommar’s Brutal, Unhinged Ending?”, describing the dissonance between the dark, horrific way one of the actors conceptualized his character’s fate and the laughing reactions from audiences viewing that scene. An interview (again, on Slate) with Ari Aster asked the director about the audience laughter, and he replied, “The hope is that people will not know quite how to react. And laughter is like, I think, pretty appropriate.” Near the movie’s beginning, one of the Swedish characters remarks that the Americans may find the pagan traditions silly, so they should think of it as a kind of theatre, and it’s not too much of a stretch to see this as a lampshading of the film’s intention of presenting the often befuddling (and, it bears mentioning, mostly fictitious) pagan rituals in a way that blurs the line between sinister and goofy. In Midsommar, the two tones are not separate but two sides of the same effect. So it’s no surprise that if you hop on Letterboxd, you’ll find a whole host of reviews either praising the film’s use of humor or expressing confusion and discomfort at their involuntarily amused response. Which, it seems, is part of the intended effect – in making a movie that is fundamentally ambivalent in committing to either horror or comedy, Aster has created a situation in which the horrific and comedic elements react together to leave the audience with a deep disquiet of a kind not typically evoked.
In abandoning the either/or mode of the typical horror-comedy, Midsommar withholds the usual catharsis of a laugh or a scare from its audience; to be sure, both laughs and scares abound, but somehow, having both happen at the same time cancels out any of the rush/relief that other movies play on, and in doing so, it essentially distorts the structure that we audience members are so used to putting our weight on – the cinematic equivalent of that disoriented, slightly panicked feeling of putting your foot forward at the top of a flight of stairs, thinking there is another step and finding only air. By evoking this feeling for a full 147 minutes, the film achieves this utterly bizarre, phantasmagoric tone that is deeply unsettling and also largely unprecedented in the horror-comedy genre. Here and there in the history of the genre, small moments achieve the sort of waking-nightmare feel from having horror and comedy exist simultaneously (I’m thinking, for example, of the laughing scene in Evil Dead 2), but Midsommar is the first movie I’ve seen that attempts to evoke this effect over an entire feature length.
Watching Midsommar, my visceral reactions become oddly dissociated from the typical chemical effects in my brain. I laughed, but I didn’t feel the pleasant rush of endorphins; I was scared, but I never felt adrenaline. It’s disorienting to the max, but it’s also spellbinding. As with Hereditary, this is certainly not everyone’s cup of psilocybin tea. And like I already said at the very beginning of this piece, Midsommar is deeply flawed as a whole. But for me at least, there’s something magnetic I can’t deny about the bewildering kaleidoscope of swallowing this movie in real time, in a theater, with a nervous audience laughing without knowing if they are supposed to. A great experience need not require a great movie.