Midsommar ★★★★

Midsommar is very different from Ari Aster’s debut film. They both share a knack for uncomfortable drama, masterful use of violence, and unsettling imagery deployed with calculated precision. But while Hereditary was a constantly crushing vice of dread and unease, this movie is lighter, odder, more distant and traditional, relying more on surreal weirdness and a surprising thread of dark humor.

Where Midsommar diverts most notably from its predecessor is in characters and tone. Unfortunately, the characters were the weakest part of the film for me. For the first half, particularly the first act, Midsommar’s protagonists are imbued with the same unflattering humanity that made Hereditary’s dysfunctional family so compelling. And then a pivotal, horrific incident occurs, and aside from Dani, these people cease to feel like real humans or characters. Her friends are reduced to slasher movie victims: shallowly defined by one-note personalities, acting in unrealistic ways, making bad decisions that push the plot forward rather than feel motivated by characterizations. It doesn’t help that, again aside from Dani, none of those characters are likable; they’re either insufferable jerks or are extraneous to the point of only seeming like fodder. This works in the context of the themes and narrative, but it means that the characters feel distant and cold. Midsommar lacks the intimate focus that made Hereditary’s flawed family so relatable and engaging. However, Florence Pugh’s Dani is fantastic as the emotional core of the story. When the other characters are frustrating to watch, her journey is always engrossing and sympathetic.

Hereditary also benefited from having a ceaseless sense of unease and inescapable doom. The domestic drama and occult horror were tightly interwoven, and each new tragedy ratcheted up the tension of both facets. Midsommar is not an ever-tightening vice, but a trip into a gradually more bizzare nightmare. After a harrowing opening, the plot leisurely winds through festive cheer, exposition, inner-group conflict, and ample offerings of hallucinogens. The sun-drenched festivities and inviting atmosphere aren’t immediately ominous. If anything, it’s our familiarity with cult horror that makes such patient hosts and communal joy seem uneasy. That’s what most separates this from a movie like The Wicker Man. Devious cult shenanigans was a surprise twist in 1973; here, every line, new ritual, and friendly face is a cause for wary concern.

Humor from the juxtaposition of confused outsiders and frolicking residents is also quite common, as well as from Will Poulter’s character. The comedic elements and relaxed pace result in a disarming sense of calm, one that is shattered when Midsommar unleashes its gruesome violence. Much like Hereditary’s most infamous scene, the moments of violence in Midsommar are always a jarring slap in the face. Their grotesque potency is increased by the movie’s serene atmosphere. Like the characters themselves, the eruptions of gore - portrayed with bluntly uncomfortable clarity - sharply contrast with the hospitality and ecstatic rituals. There’s a surreal horror to Midsommar’s most brutal scenes, to see nightmarish imagery imbued with such pleasantness and even twisted beauty.

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