Sunday, July 7, 2019

Summer dreams ripped at the seams, but oh—those summer nights


While never managing to become "more," and prompting the question, "why do you need it to be 'more' anyway, Ari?", Midsommar is a hell of a good horror film in The Wicker Man vein, and that's still fresh enough that it doesn't matter too much what else is wrong with it.

Written and directed by Ari Aster

Spoiler alert: moderate, though I just mentioned it's a Wicker Man rip-off, so, you know... there's that

The work of writer-director Ari Aster is emblematic of 2010s art horror as a whole, I guess, and with his last film, the universally-overrated Hereditary, and his newest, Midsommar, we can assertively state that Aster's favorite thing is severe, aesthetically-rigorous, almost-machine-tooled pastiche that thinks it's much smarter and profounder than it actually is, and which for some reason people approach with different, somehow lower standards than they would use for schlock that simply avows that, yes, it's schlock.  That I genuinely enjoyed Midsommar, rather than nodded patiently at the cold skill on display like I did with Hereditary, doesn't really change that.  The easiest explanation for the difference is that while Hereditary remixed Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen—which is to say, Hereditary did the same thing approximately fourteen jillion other horror films have already done (in fairness, usually worse, but sometimes much, much better)—Midsommar remixes The Wicker Man, and I can think of only two other movies since 1973 that have: The Wicker Man's own 2006 remake, which is terrible, and 2018's The Apostle, which is probably drearier still, even if it's not, properly speaking, as bad.

Now, I don't think Midsommar surpasses its inspiration on any level except perhaps its technical acumen—for Aster is certainly a very fine director—but it does remix The Wicker Man (with a different plot, a cosmetically-different setting, and a mostly-identical ending) quite exceptionally well.  For starters, it gets that The Wicker Man is a horror-comedy, or at least a horror movie with a noticeable sense of humor.  Sadly, it doesn't bother with being a horror-musical (Midsommar has diegetic hymns, and a sort of musical attitude, but only one scene that gestures toward "musical number").  Nor does it have the same thematic concerns, which in The Wicker Man involved wondering aloud why humans need religion.

This, of course, is where the pastiche begins, by effectively treating The Wicker Man as a rubric into which characters and ideas can be plugged and played at will, and, having found that somebody else has done most of the work for him, this is exactly what Aster does, claiming that it deeply explores his experience of a terrible break-up, though which lead is supposed to represent him or his feelings isn't particularly clear.  You'd assume it's the guy, but even if I'm dubious about Aster as an artist, I still hope he doesn't secretly feel he's that bland.

So: it happens that Dani (Florence Pugh) has been dating Christian (Jack Reynor) for what turns out to be years, and while she's still committed to this relationship, we learn that he's been checked out for many months, basically stringing her along out of... actually, it's not obvious why he hasn't pulled the trigger, and I hate to stop a plot synopsis while I'm writing it, but the biggest problem with Midsommar is that it has absolutely no sense of its characters as people, as opposed to vaguely-sketched ideas like "bad emotionally-absent boyfriend" and "sad clingy girlfriend," nor does it have many specific or even intelligible things to say about their relationship as a relationship.  In any event, the fact that they're in their mid or even late twenties, and don't live together after all this time, or the fact that he seems to view her as a burden, has not clued Dani into Christian's indifference.

Even so, it would probably end right around the time we meet them in the middle of winter, but for the tragedy that Dani feared might happen does, her mentally ill sister making good on her barely-cryptic threats and murdering their parents in what is, perhaps, the best scene in the whole film.  I honestly mean that as a compliment—as narratively questionable as it is, it feels like the epilogue to a great horror movie we just didn't get to see, a tour through a hauntingly beautiful mausoleum that's been defined by diffused cool blues, as interrupted by the strobe pattern of bright blues and crimsons from the emergency vehicles outside.

The upshot is that Christian still hasn't broken up with her six months later, which, according to math, makes it midsummer.  Now Christian conspires to take an extended vacation to the far north of Sweden with his fellow Ph.D. students/annoying dudebros, Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), and, importantly, Swedish national Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), the instigator and organizer of this trip, who's invited his buds to experience his childhood commune's Midsommar festival with him, promising that hanging out with a bunch of rural earth-worshipping cultists during their most important ceremonies shall be fun.  For some reason, Christian believes him, and winds up inviting Dani even though he doesn't want her to go, and Dani accepts, even though she doesn't want to go, because she's grasping at the last slender reeds of hope that her boyfriend actually loves her.  And while I suppose I've been unusually detailed and distracted in relating the bare summary of what amounts to a prologue here, it's probably fine (it certainly takes much more time in this 147 minute film), because then they arrive in Sweden, the sun never fully sets, and The Wicker Man happens in scenes of brightly-appointed horror.  I don't imagine I need to be any more specific than that.

Well, this likely isn't what Aster thought he was doing, and I assume he'd never put it so bluntly even if he did, but the underlying justification for Midsommar, and it's a rather good one, isn't "The Wicker Man" as such, but more like "what if The Wicker Man was a rad fuckin' slasher movie, man?"  That results in a sprawling cast who would be (and are) entirely counterproductive to any relationship drama, but nonetheless are necessary if we're going to have a lot of expendable meat.  (Aster even throws a couple more randos onto this pile, guests of Pelle's brother.)  And so we're treated, mostly, to the standard spectacle of watching several one-note characters—Pelle and Josh have the best notes, but Pelle is (spoiler? uh-huh) not trustworthy, and Josh is the only person who has actual business there, being an anthropologist interested specifically in midsummer festivals—as they mill around being amusing in an increasingly strange location, until eventually they die in colorful ways.  (Not colorful enough, really—Midsommar would benefit from more frequent violence, though God damn does that sound ungrateful, given that the violence we see is incredible.)

The difference between Midsommar and a run-of-the-mill slasher, besides the obvious formal qualities, is probably just that the milling around is actually amusing.  Poulter in particular makes a genuinely great slasher victim out of Mark—his physical and performative resemblance to the markiest of Marks, that is, Wahlberg, only as a sneering endomorph instead of a 'roided beefcake, is probably no accident (his eyebrows are, like, just beautifully annoying), and he plays flawlessly to that most unappealing of types, the crass masculinist who talks endless shit about fucking and partying, but is transparently just an overcompensating twerp.

But while Midsommar is indeed a rad slasher, after its fashion, it resists its nature, which is likely one reason why it has that very un-slasherlike runtime of 147 minutes—some of which is wasted, clearly, but to its credit it's not something I keenly felt, since most of it goes to mood and methodical pace.  For example, a half hour could probably be knocked off the runtime if the camera just started any given shot in the place it eventually ends up; but I don't think I'd actually want this.  But then, another half hour is spent less productively, on Dani and Christian, and with actors who appear to have been cast for idiosyncratic reasons: in Pugh's case, for an amazing pore structure that's invulnerable to the closest of close-ups, because she's not doing much else with her performance besides playing the obvious emotions of any given scene, and definitely not threading Dani's overwhelming grief, nor her desperation for human comfort, into most of them; in Reynor's case, for looking like what would happen to Chris Pratt if he were put through an anime eye Instagram filter, which gives him the unnerving prettiness of a doll that becomes human only when Christian's confused.

Less-than-ideal for a relationship drama, sure, and it's not even their fault: the fault's with an overdetermined screenplay that, in the first instance, puts Christian in an utterly and needlessly impossible situation that takes away any agency he had in their relationship, and then despises him for it anyway; and, in the second instance, doesn't dig into what Dani even expects out of this brick of a man, or why she's stuck on him, or why Christian was ambivalent about breaking up, or why Christian is dissatisfied with her at all, leaving such things to implication or to very thin explication, like "maybe Pugh is supposed to be playing someone more fragile and more self-sabotaging than her performance indicates, not just someone wearing depression pants," or "they don't have sex much anymore, as is supposed in a single line by a third party and confirmed by neither of our leads."  I mean, it's a "relationship drama" that doesn't even feature a single real conversation between the two particpants; the closest we get is a logistical/plot discussion about Christian hiding the fact he's going to Sweden, and even that's frontloaded.  And it's a relationship drama where the worst thing the bad partner does is try to steal somebody else's thesis.

A pity, but perfectly fine horror movies based on the classic horror premise of disproportionately punishing everyday human foibles have been made with far more obnoxious characters and even emptier screenplays; and Midsommar is a very fine horror movie, especially when that's all it's striving to be.  It's formally playful and often so crazily absurd that it's impossible to believe it's not supposed to be laughed at, hard—a certain "fertility ritual" is fucking hilarious, likely the funniest thing I've seen in a movie all year—while never sacrificing that Wicker Man sense of oppressive offness that permeates every shot, often punching up the mood even further with drug-fueled fugues that subtly and not-so-subtly distort the backgrounds and foregrounds in satisfyingly quease-making ways.  (An unimaginative but strong and doomy score by The Haxan Cloak—yeah, I get it—helps too, as does some abrasive, expressionistic, just-this-side-of-too-much sound design.)

Ultimately, Midsommar both cheats and sets itself up an admirable challenge: it goes about creating the dreadful atmosphere of  horror in a land where, by definition, there can never be darkness.  Yet the midnight sun rendered by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, hot and almost painfully bright, becomes as upsetting and frightening as any stretch of black screen that's ever been, particularly when what it illuminates is a monstrously friendly band of white-clad cultists smiling daggers at a group of T-shirt-wearing feebs who stand out like sore thumbs and keep getting crowded into smaller and smaller portions of the frame by their hosts.  It's probably the best "broad daylight" horror film I've ever seen, at least on that single axis, which is a rare enough accomplishment that it doesn't mean too much by itself (the only other film I can think of offhand to use daylight in anything like the same way was Lucky McKee's The Woman, which is nowhere near as constant or consistent).  But I mean it with all my heart.

That leaves us with a pretty damned great schlock horror movie that still isn't as good as the movie it seeks to supplement, but at least bears enough novelty that it's absolutely worthwhile, while being crudely packaged inside an art horror movie that's blatantly about something, but, like many art horror movies, about it very badly.  It balances out, because most horror movies are just about stupid people doing stupid things (and you'll note I haven't complained once about how Midsommar's meat is truly fucking stupid, even by horror standards), and while it only transcends its peers based on its filmmaking, filmmaking's not nothing, and that makes Midsommar better than almost all of them.

Score: 7/10

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