Friday, August 23, 2019

Midsommar (2019)

Midsommar is a tough film to sum up in a simple statement. It's a horror film, to be sure, but it also is about a failing relationship.  And it could be looked at as a dark fairy tale cautioning one on the dangers of being the outsider in a seemingly welcoming community.  Regardless of how you view it, the film is gorgeous looking, the acting is solid and scenes are riddled with clues of events yet to come, which keeps you engaged.  And, though the 2 1/2 hour running time might cause some to worry it drags out, that's not the case.  It's the creepiest film I've seen that takes place in daylight.  You won't get any jump scares, but the sense of dread is intense and haunting.

The core of the story revolves around the deteriorating relationship between two college students, Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) and Christian Hughes (Jack Reynor).  Christian wants to end the relationship, and is encouraged to do so by his friends Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper), but once Dani is traumatized by a family tragedy, Christian puts his plans on hold.

A few months later, Dani finds out that Christian, Mark and Josh are going to Sweden, as their friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) has invited them to the Harga, a midsummer celebration that occurs once every 90 years, in his ancestral commune.  The couple argues, resulting in Christian reluctantly inviting Dani to join them.

Hey, we're just a group of American students in a foreign land,
observing a possibly pagan ritual.  What could possibly happen?

The group arrives and meets an English couple invited to the celebration by Pelle's brother.  And if you think all goes well, and the six outsiders experience a deep appreciation of another culture's traditions, well, let's just say you walked into the wrong movie.  Mayhem does ensue, but only after the film ratchets up the tension and makes the beautiful location feel very creepy.

To be honest, I had a sense of deja vu once the group arrived in the commune.  It was only when the first warning to the main characters that all wasn't right with this celebration that I caught myself muttering, "Why don't you leave?  Haven't you seen The Wicker Man?"

Oh god, not that one!

I don't want to say writer/director Ari Aster ripped off Robin Hardy's 1973 masterwork of horror.  But the plot, involve outsiders within a pagan culture which they don't understand, and the community members harboring their own agenda, it would be impossible for comparisons to be made between the two films.  And both films move with a slow, deliberate pace, but Aster isn't copying the earlier film's pace.  Midsommar wouldn't have worked if it moved any faster.  If you can put aside any desire to compare the two, you'll find plenty to enjoy.

One thing that does become evident early on is that the commune acts more like a cult towards the outsiders.  The sun doesn't set during the summer months in that part of Sweden, disrupting the group's circadian rhythm.  Well, that and sleeping in a large, open dorm building with crying infants.  Also, the group partake in psychedelics (as well as a few potions, delivered without their knowledge) offered during the celebration, adding to their sense of disorientation.  It does explain why the group stays in the commune, even when it appears they know they shouldn't.  And it shows what seals Dani's fate, as her hallucinations are mostly about her recent trauma, and becoming one with nature.  Keep this in mind, as you might think the main actors are falling flat once the film reaches its climax.  The actors are playing their characters as tripping balls and dealing with extreme fatigue, making them numb and easily manipulated.

Don't worry, it's all natural.
Just don't expect to feel your toes for a while.

As I mentioned above, the acting is solid all around.  Pugh and Reynor are terrific as a couple staying together even though it's obvious the relationship is over.  Though Christian delays breaking things off after Dani's family trauma (and understandable so), he comes off as someone wanting to do the right thing, but unable to find a way.  And Pugh plays her character as one looking for stability in her life, even if it means staying in a sour relationship.  Their discussion concerning Christian's announcement that he was planning to travel to Sweden without her is well played, as the couple doesn't yell at each other, but more engage in a quiet verbal knife fight that Dani ends up winning.

But that brings up one of my problems with Midsommar.  As Dani and Christian's relationship is the focal point of the film, it seems to be shuffled into the background as things go bad.  As the story progresses, Dani and Christian hardly talk to each other.  While one could take this as a continuing sign of their crumbling relationship, it keeps the script from setting up the climax.  Instead, their issues get replaced by a new fracturing relationship, as Christian's decides to write his thesis on the commune, conflicting with Josh's plans.  Meanwhile, Mark just walks about playing the ugly American, vaping everywhere and urinating on sacred trees, while Josh breaks his agreement with the commune elders, marking them both like camp councilors in a slasher film.

But as the film reaches his climax, the relationship takes center stage once again.  But it comes off as rather a forgone conclusion rather than evolving from the interaction between Dani and Christian.  The event that pushes the climax forward is one that one might see as the tipping point, and the mix of drugs and exhaustion set up by the commune does give the audience a sense that it was going to happen.  Still, I'd like to have seen more interactions between Dani and Christian to set it up, rather than the other characters taking over the middle part of the film.

Look, I know we haven't dealt with our relationship for a bit of screen time,
but now's a good time to bring it up again, as the final act is on the horizon.

But the film's biggest flaw is in the first event that indicates something is wrong with the Harga.  Now, as a horror film fan, I know screenwriters have to keep the protagonists in the haunted cabin/woods/asylum/whatever, even as the warning signs continue to build.  But those indications that things are about to go south usually start out slow and gradually build, even though the audience knows what those signs are leading towards.  After all, we are watching a horror film, so weird noises in the basement and missing friends mean something to the audience, and not to the characters on the screen.  At least not until the bodies start turning up.

But in Midsommar, the first warning sign skips Defcon 1 to 4, and blasts well past 5.  I'm not going to give it away, but once you see it, you wonder why the characters aren't leaving their belongings behind and racing through the forest towards the main highway.  It's that dramatic, and as the group hasn't been doped up long enough to overcome their sense of self-preservation, it feels silly that the commune elders are able to keep them from leaving.  Okay, you could argue that since Christian and Josh are anthropology graduate students, they might stay on to learn more about the group.  But that just doesn't work, given what happens.  Seriously, if the characters really think these people would let you write about their commune after what happens, they are dumber than most of the camp councilors filling the screen in the 80s.

I know you might think it's time for us to leave, but the commune elders say it's all normal.
So everything must be good, right?

That moment might stretch your suspension of disbelief, but if you can get past that, Midsommar is a nice, slow building horror film.  Aster's direction is sharp and the film looks beautiful, and the hints spread throughout the film of what's to come don't require a second view to catch, as Aster makes them obvious without being overly blatant.  The performances are solid, though I wish the script had spent more time dealing with the interactions between Dani and Christian.  And it's nice that the script doesn't turn the commune members into stereotypical horror villains, a fault of other films dealing with similar subject matter.  It's easy to get the sense that they don't feel they are doing anything wrong, which makes their actions even more harrowing.

You might not be burning to revisit it soon, but Midsommar is quite effective and, if you haven't seen it yet, you might want to check out the home video.  It's been reported on the Internet (and we all know everything on the web is true, so keep that in mind) that 30 minutes were cut from the theatrical release, partly to earn the film an R-rating.  This doesn't feel surprising, as the theatrical version contains some some very strong sexual content.  I don't know if the additional footage will add anything new to the film, but it will make for an interesting evening.  You just might not want to make this a first date viewing.

Just a suggestion here.  If you've visiting a commune and some guy is carrying
a giant wooden mallet, it might be time to LEAVE!

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