Department of Nonsensical Misogyny.
You would think that chaos is the point of horror. But the best horror movies stay in control of their nightmares. Writer-director Ari Aster has a knack for starting his movies tightly but he tends to devolve to grotesque horror non-sequiturs that spin out of control.
In Midsommar, the excellent Florence Pugh plays Dani, a young woman who is in a dying relationship with her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), and who suffers an unspeakable family trauma. In the first third of the movie the horror is mundane —as in a dreadful relationship that trudges along painfully despite the fact that it is clearly unsatisfying for both parties. Dani is needy and clingy and Christian feels too guilty and tries too hard to appease her, and this is before tragedy strikes her. Aster nails the tortured dynamics and language of a codependent relationship. Dani and Christian never say what they really feel, endlessly pretending to try to please the other at the expense of their own needs. This is a horror in itself. But Dani seems to be a walking guilt trip. Before her terrible loss, Christian and his male buddies resent her because she exerts too much influence on him. After her tragedy, they cannot fight her.
Christian and his pals are anthropology students and one of them, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), invites them to witness the midsummer rites in the Swedish commune where he grew up. It’s supposed to be a guys only trip but Dani ends up coming along because no one has the balls to tell her she’s not wanted. As they say, “awkward!”, and a great premise to rev up a horror film.
To me, the scariest horror happens in the first act, as these “friends” travel together to a foreign country, with someone who is not really welcome, to a remote place in the middle of nowhere without a means of escape (no car, no public transportation), and the visitors are offered mushrooms right off the bat. The discomfort of a traumatized Dani tagging along where she is clearly not wanted is compounded by arriving at a place where the sun does not set, and everyone in the commune looks way too wholesome.
What would be super horrible is if Dani and Christian doubled down on their codependent, passive aggressive ways on this trip, because traveling with your better half is the fastest way of knowing whether you can stand to be with them. At first, Aster follows this idea, as Christian is pulled between Dani’s understandable neediness and the peer pressure of his friends, and she subsumes herself into their needs because of his resentful acquiescence. But Aster does not have a subtle hand. In the end, a good insight into the horrendous dynamics of codependency devolves into a trite revenge story with a bizarre cult on the side.
Midsommar is beautifully shot, the music by The Haxan Cloak is fantastic, the costumes by Andrea Flesch are beautiful, and even though it is long (and I didn’t see the extended director’s cut), I was not bored. Aster peppers his movies with morbid stuff to keep the audience entertained, as if we’re ogling a cabinet of curiosities. Yet I can’t say that I felt any tension. He has some good ideas, like setting this story in idyllic daylight, but he doesn’t follow through on the most potentially interesting sources of dread— for instance, jet lagged people in a place where the sun never sets, or how a cult can successfully make someone who is alienated feel totally at home. He misses the opportunity to creep the audience out with the way that cults can play a number on people. He explains the convoluted rules of the cult instead of letting the characters and the audience figure them out. He goes for facile spookiness and grotesque horror (what are those meat pies being served for lunch?). I kept thinking that the people who gave us Abba and Ikea would never dream up a senselessly bloody cult like this one. Aster is less interested in the Swedish pagan cult than in the gory details. Worrisome stuff happens, yet Dani and Christian are rather blasé about it. As in Hereditary, the better part of the movie is the beginning when Aster spends his sweet time building up towards the horror. Once he unleashes the horror, the effect is campy and absurd rather than chilling.
The movie suffers from what I call “the Holiday Inn problem” in horror films: why stick around for the torture when you could decamp to the nearest hotel? After the one incident that should have them all fleeing, the American guests stay there for no good reason. The fact that they are anthropology students is a rather flimsy pretext. The fact that they left the car far away is also not convincing. It’s still reachable by foot, but no one seems to think of it. To be effective, horror movies have to set up the character motivations strongly and logically, so we are not disappointed by the obtuseness of the characters’ choices. The arbitrariness of these choices renders the movie silly, rather than horrific. I did like how the cult members are good at lying and covering stuff up, but our heroes are way too oblivious.
Aster references Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in many ways: the remote vacation location, the spookiness in broad daylight, the eerie music. Dani’s blanket at the cabin is the exact pattern of the iconic carpeting in the hallways of the Overlook Hotel, and the series of photos of the May Queens are reminiscent of the ending of the The Shining with the photos of New Year Eves past, as are many of the wide shots and smooth camera glides. But unlike Kubrick, Aster does not have the elegance required to sustain his own premise. The Shining hinges on an extremely palpable horror — a man wants to kill his family in an isolated place. The fact that the hotel is haunted deepens the psychological terror, as it dawns on us that Jack Torrance is the manifestation of an evil that lives beyond time.
In Midsommar nothing is paranormal, but then the psychological terror needs to make sense. And here is where the movie falters. Characters make non-sensical choices that cannot be ascribed just to the fact that they are tripping on cult-made tea.
In Dani, Aster has fashioned a toxic female who is conditioned by suffering, sort of like a female Jack Torrance without the malevolent glee. She is a needy girlfriend. She gets overly upset over Christian missing her birthday and can’t let it go. She is eternally disappointed in him since he’s no peach: he goes through the motions of being understanding, which can be infuriating. He is emotionally clueless. Still, Christian tries to help Dani, however feebly, but she is beyond help. By the end she has become some sort of monstrous hysterical female covered in flowers who exacts a horrible revenge. This could be read as darkly funny: Here’s what can happen to waffling, ineffectual boyfriends who pretend to be solicitous. Or it could also be read as Aster’s punishment of his milquetoasty male character for not putting his foot down. Does Christian then deserve his terrible fate because he is a half-assed millennial snowflake? Nah. His torture seems too extreme, and Aster, rather dishonestly, doesn’t show us the moment when Dani makes the choice to punish Christian. It all boils down to the proverbial fury of the woman scorned. Dani is all emotion and no reason. She turns her trauma into destruction. Aster prefers to crown her a vengeful queen, who fulfills her emotional needs by destroying the man she loves. This is not female empowerment, as some have suggested. This view of an emotionally unsatisfiable woman is the most disturbing part of the movie.