Midsommar ★★

“This rune, for example, is about grief.”

At which point I spit out my drink and wept before the labyrinthine complexity of Ari’s Asterpiece, Midsommar. Because, if you think about it, that’s just what grief is: a centennial pagan blood ritual. And if it isn’t—well, that’s just one in a whole host of things this film doesn’t consider. Midsommar is a strange film, because it presents itself as something to be appreciated, analyzed, deconstructed, and yet declines to merit even the most generous of readings. It’s intentionally inaccessible and totally empty, and already hailed as one of the greatest horror films of the century.  

Midsommar’s near-instant canonization in the horror genre isn’t too surprising considering A24’s primary audience, who, at the risk of unkind generalization, are the types to insist that the horror genre needs saving. From what? Itself? James Wan? Being good?

Perhaps this isn’t too shocking of a reaction in the wake of the 2000’s, which were, in fairness, largely unkind to mainstream horror. Nearly every popular franchise of the 80’s and 90’s were rebooted into grimy, greasy take-two’s that all seemed to look and smell like gasoline, and the new ideas were Saw I - VII. People wanted horror films they could ingest and feel good about, what they perceived as a salad on the McDonald’s menu, and thus “elevated horror” was born. What is “elevated horror”? I’m not exactly sure, but the qualifications seem slight at best—the movie must consist of laptop-wallpaper cinematography, gesture at broader ideas beyond the base carnal exhibitions of “regular horror” without necessarily exploring them, and be produced by A24. But “elevated horror” turns out to be a redundant micro-genre, because the last thing horror needs is elevation. “Elevating” horror is tantamount to sticking the foundation of a house on the roof; by nature, it’s a nasty, provocative, illuminating genre that never really needed saving from anything but the person who thought it needed saving. Horror films are often the most insightful because they don’t wear their ideas on their sleeve, but use their story to both obscure and propagate the subtext. The reassurance that horror does not in fact need saving is accessible, but it’s hidden in a place many worshipers at the altar of A24 seem incapable of looking: the 20th century. And so we’re left with filmmakers like Ari Aster and films like Midsommar and the people who adore them, all trying to outsmart the craftiest of genres and elevate something that by nature shouldn’t be elevated. 

All of this to say, Midsommar is no savior of horror, but it is revolutionary, because never has horror dared to be this unflinchingly boring. The multiple sequences of prolonged ritual lethargy are gloating anti-entertainment, so painfully self-parodic that when I accidentally paused the film at one point it was a whole ten seconds before I even realized it had stopped playing. This is but one in a series of choices that appear tailor-made to “elevate” it above its genre siblings: monotonous pacing, a cheery color palette that harshly contrasts the dark emotions strangling the characters, rigorous craftsmanship that exists in service of itself to no greater end. These things all shout, “I am different! And therefore I am important!” but they are different because horror is traditionally good, and this is traditionally not. 

Admittedly, Midsommar purports to be “about” something that it presumably finds important, but it’s so ham-fisted I can’t believe anyone could take it seriously. Aster doesn’t even try to interweave subtext; it’s all there in the open. The movie is about grief because the main character is sad, and so there are many scenes where people talk about grief and scream together. It’s also about... shitty boyfriends? And so there’s a shitty boyfriend. The narrative and theme are one and the same, which isn’t the worst thing in the world, except that Aster (and its fans) treat this film like it’s both deeply nuanced and deeply horrifying, when in fact it’s neither. Midsommar is too logical to be frightening. Nothing is unexpected, nothing doesn’t make sense. Even if I found a film like Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse to be thematically baffling (not in itself a bad thing), its defiantly illogical nightmarish imagery made it terrifying. Logic is the bane of good horror. Logic is reliable, predictable, and nothing predictable is frightening, because horror is found in the unknown. Nothing unknown occurs in Midsommar. Everything that happens is preceded by an agonizingly extended buildup during which hint upon hint is dropped until we’re practically singing along with the lyrics, as it were. Then it finally happens, it’s a little grosser than we may have expected, and it’s on to the next. The most horrifying image in this entire film comes when Dani looks down and sees hay growing out of her feet. It’s so unprecedented that it truly shocked me. Sure, there‘s some gnarly practical effects work here that I actually really admire, but it occupies a total of sixty seconds in a two-and-a-half hour film. For that margin, I could google pictures of spider bites and meat grinders and get much the same effect.

Far more troubling than anything in the film itself is a concerningly popular reaction that seems to find the ending... cathartic? And not even in a metaphorical sense, because this movie wouldn’t know a metaphor from a maypole, but genuinely liberating, a happy ending, one the main character deserves. Idk, but the overwhelming response to people like myself who find that brand of frontier justice unsatisfying seems to be a Joker-esque sigh of “you wouldn’t get it.” 

Some positives persist. Florence Pugh is outstanding, even though I would say that anyway because I def have a crush on her. Haxan Cloak’s score is bone-chilling; the wailing moans and wavering strings are deeply uncomfortable and out of place in a film not nearly good enough for it. And Aster himself is a truly talented craftsman—he knows what he’s doing with a camera, even if he doesn’t know why the hell he’s doing it. I think it would serve him well to break up with whatever unfortunate soul inspired this screenplay, turn off The Wicker Man, and maybe knock it down a few notches, because the elevation isn’t doing him any favors.

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