I don’t know what happened to Ari Aster, but it must have been something bad.
The filmmaker whose debut feature film, “Hereditary,” was released in 2018, has hidden behind his work since his first short film, “The Strange Thing About the Johnson’s” was leaked and went viral in 2011. The short film was Aster’s film thesis and focused on an incestual relationship between an African American family, culminating in a sudden and violent conclusion.
Aster’s knack for taboo filmmaking continued with “Hereditary,” a film about a family slowly falling apart while their grandmother passes away. “Hereditary” stands out among other horror films for its stirring vision of inter-familial trauma and the visceral, grotesque terror in its third act. With “Midsommar,” the question of Aster’s filmmaking still lingers: how does he come up with this stuff?
On the surface, “Midsommar” doesn’t deviate very far from a stereotypical horror flick. A group of college students travel to a remote area, they meet a secluded cult-like commune and all hell eventually ensues. But “Midsommar” does it’s best to disguise the underlying plot. For one, the movie heavily deals with the theme of loss through a fragmented relationship and through actual death.
The film opens with Dani, an anxious graduate student, calling her boyfriend, Christian, worrying that her sister has killed herself. Dani’s constant worry has strained her relationship with Christian, who decides he wants to break up with her. But when Dani’s fears are realized, Christian is forced to stay with her.
“Midsommar” also looks nothing like a horror film. The film takes place in Sweden during the Summer Solstice where there is almost constant sunlight. Most of the film is shot in an open field as well. The result is a beautiful, brightly colored film that looks more romantic than terrifying. Flowery white dresses and vivid blooming flowers take the spotlight over blood and guts, although they aren’t missing completely from “Midsommar.”
Aster’s filming brings a sense apprehension to this gorgeous landscape. Long, sweeping shots dominate most of this film, from the twisting overhead shot that follows the college students to the Swedish commune, to the creeping backwards shot of a tapestry telling the story of a love potion being created from menstrual blood and pubic hair. Scenes are held for a few moments too long. Widescreen shots show conversations from afar. Drug use is rampant in the Swedish commune, and slight visual effects distort certain scenes, with flowers sporadically blooming and tree bark flowing from trunks like rainfall. All of these clever filming techniques draw the viewers in, while also making them uneasy.
Where “Hereditary” excelled at making viewers feel scared, “Midsommar” excels at making viewers feel unsettled. This movie is not for the faint of heart. There are scenes of graphic violence that pull no punches, as well as a particular scene with very graphic nudity. Bodies are smashed, beaten and burned. Audible cues are even more disturbing. Blood-curdling screams and creepy chants drown out all other noises.
I felt thoroughly anxious throughout the film, something I have rarely felt in a movie theater. I’ll also say this film is especially disturbing for any viewer who has lost a loved one. Dani’s loss of her family and her reaction was a bit too realistic, and it left me feeling very uncomfortable. However, all of this uneasiness is compounded by how beautiful the film is. You expect a graphic murder to be carried out in a dark alleyway, not in a beautiful field surrounded by smiling Swedes.
“Midsommar” feels real, raw and creepy. It was an incredible movie, but one that I don’t want to ever watch again. Aster continues to play with traditional horror themes and makes them feel more and more real. “Midsommar” was more predictable than “Hereditary,” and I wasn’t really surprised at any particular moment. But I was certainly shocked, and the nearly two and a half hour run time felt like a breeze. With “Midsommar,” Aster further blurs the line of what constitutes a “horror” movie and emphasizes that he really needs to see a therapist.