Five minutes into Midsommar I began to get scared. Specifically, I feared that the rest of the movie would continue to be slow and pedantic. And sure enough, the film preyed upon these fears as I kept waiting for the movie to really kick into gear. In a way, it proved suspenseful. As the movie lumbered through its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, I wondered when it would pick up. As the last hour turned into the last half hour and so on and so forth, it finally hit its stride. Two minutes later, it ended.
Midsommar centers around a group of college students who take a trip to Sweden to visit a nine-day festival held by a cult. The cult gets its influences from pagan rituals that aim to create a sense of close-knit community while drawing it closer to nature. As one expects, the cult has ulterior motives in allowing outsiders in to witness its inner workings.
Substitute a policeman for the college students and Scotland for Sweden and you have the plot for The Wicker Man. The original 1973 horror classic builds suspense artfully, delivering a twist ending that pays off the mystery that unfolds during its runtime. It uses symbolism and metaphor to highlight themes surrounding free love and counter-culture that had cropped up around the previous decade. Its creepy scenes become all the more creepy when juxtaposed with lighthearted and humorous folk songs and characters. Midsommar attempts to recreate this (much like the Nick Cage remake) yet fails to stick the landing.
When the movie begins, Dani finds out that her bipolar sister murdered her parents and then herself. Aside from providing an unnecessary cliché of mentally ill people as deranged killers, it exists as shock value but adds nothing to the proceedings. Just when her boyfriend Christian debates whether to break up with her, she breaks the news to him, so he feels obligated to stay. His dude-bro friends encourage him to dump her to no avail, but do convince him to join them for a month and a half trip to Sweden. The weak script ensures that characters other than Dani come off flimsier than a soggy pancake while most of the dialogue proves stilted and awkward. When Dani chastises Christian for not telling her about the trip, he offers a hasty apology. She asks why he didn’t tell her and he responds “I don’t know,” after which she asks about the trip itself and he says, “I don’t want to talk.” This goes on for a while. The film frequently suggests awareness of its narrative shortcomings, but after a while this just highlights these as flaws.
Though not the best scriptwriter, Ari Aster is a skilled filmmaker and director. One of the best characters is the Swedish countryside itself, which looms large in the film’s many wide shots and provides frames of reference for the layout of the camp’s lodges. Aster gets the most out of the location, evoking a fairytale sense of beauty and otherworldliness in the many psychedelic sequences. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski returns, having previously worked with Aster on Hereditary. His cinematography proves a high point. One early shot of a car heading down a long road turns upside down and then right side up, providing a fitting sense of disorientation as we enter a new land. Production designer Henrik Svensson also deserves praise for building a cheerful yet unsettling commune.
Florence Pugh shines as Dani, realistically portraying a young woman who has to juggle keeping up appearances on a trip with unresolved grief. Whenever she breaks down, it never feels forced or repetitive. Instead, she showcases how these attacks are always under the surface waiting to come out, and when they do it’s simply a natural result of getting pushed too far to the edge. As for the rest of the cast, everyone does an okay job with what little they’re given, but each person comes off as one note. Towards the middle of the film, characters begin to randomly disappear, and it almost feels as if the actors simply started walking off, bored of their own movie. Even the background actors seem unsure of what to do, and as I watched them playing pattycake I wondered if they were genuinely trying to pass the time.
With so much time in which little happens on screen, it’s truly mind boggling that Midsommar clocks in at two and a half hours. Many scenes feel like they exist to buy time, which begs the question, for what? No character building occurs, no mysteries get set in place, and hardly any suspense gets built. Instead we watch white-robed people running through fields, preparing food, and getting ready to eat said food. The first time the film focuses on people waiting to get the signal to begin eating, it almost feels suspenseful. The third time this happens it’s beyond tedious.
Strangely enough, Midsommar boasts some hysterically funny scenes. These come off as weird and eccentric, and it’s never quite clear if they’re meant to be taken as a joke. The few horror scenes that do exist showcase gore and death in that hyper-realistic way that Hereditary did, but unlike Hereditary they don’t use these to create a sense of active terror. The horror of Midsommar is passive, a mutilated body may get shown off but we rarely see how it got to that state.
Subtext can aid context, but it does not substitute for a lack of context. The film lays on the foreshadowing heavily, and with all buildup and little payoff, that’s about all that it can do. Imagery of Swedish folklore crops up abundantly in the first half, paving the way for what’s to come. At one point we see a tapestry of a young woman baking a pie using her menstrual fluid, and sure enough this pie comes along later in the film. There’s a lot of symbolism in Midsommar. Perhaps this aesthetically pleasing but unappealing pie serves as a symbol for the movie itself.
Midsommar proves an visually stunning but ultimately underwhelming venture. Well crafted production design and cinematography can only go so far against a predictable script, dull characters, and a general hands-off approach to editing.