‘Midsommar’ wants to be more than a horror film

Midsommar opens with a shot of a suburban street whose tranquility is ruined by a ringing phone — the loudest ringing phone I’ve heard in movies all year; the news on the other end isn’t good. The film ends with a close-up of Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh), freshly crowned the May Queen of Hårga, smiling triumphantly as she and her fellow commune-nists watch purgative fires consume a temple. If Ari Aster’s followup to Hereditary is “about” anything, it’s how a young woman replaces her community with a new one.

Also, Midsommar is, I can write with confidence, among the most expansive depictions of relationship revenge in movies. After learning that her bipolar sister has killed herself and her parents, Dani confronts the patient condescension and increasing impatience of boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), an anthropology grad student so slow on the uptake that he looks incapable of typing his name on the thesis he hasn’t written yet. Worse, he extends an invitation to join him and his grad student buds at Pelle’s commune outside Stockholm for the summer solstice festival, confident that the grief-wracked Dani will say no. Although many things happen in Midsommar, the tension between Dani and Christian remains the fulcrum, especially when a pretty young villager gives him The Look (Reynor plays Christian as one of those guys incapable of telling the truth about their dirtiest impulses). Dani’s not Medea, but jet lag, devastation, and potions warp her sense of fair play.

Blessed with a rich sound design, a game cast, and the patience to sketch a community with a meticulousness that other directors lack the talent and money to indulge (the film runs 140 minutes), Midsommar is the toniest of horror flicks; every grass stain was no doubt storyboarded. It’s not a pleasant experience. Even for people of color who’ve watched Village of the Damned and trained to mistrust smiling white men and women offering herbal tea, Midsommar takes rather too much pleasure in staging the bludgeoning of Josh (William Jackson Harper), the most erudite and committed student. Coming after a battle with Christian about who will take credit over their shared thesis about village customs, it’s hard to know who’s exploiting whom when it’s easier to see which minority gets punished for being smart; Aster stages the scene as  if Josh is getting his comeuppance. Mark (Will Poulter) and London couple Connie (Ellora Torchia) and Simon (Archie Madekwe), the only other people of uncertain ethnicity, also meet gruesome ends (at least you can Mark, a lout and doltish who seals his fate after pissing on an ancestral tree, was marked for death from his first scene). Sure, Aster films a senicide too, sticking his camera into their smashed faces seconds after leaping off a cliff, but at least they chose their fates and according to village elders are promised eternal life as part of the soil.

Assessing Midsommar is difficult when its creator seems incapable of a boring sequence. He uses the overhead shot for topography and the unveiling of unseen corners, not merely to impose distance. The sound design, as previously noted, immerses the audience in field recordings abruptly disturbed by piercing screams; the villagers’ habit of mimicking the outsiders’ expressions of sorrow without mocking them is Aster’s most novel idea. His J-cuts are creepy. The ending satisfies. Without Pugh’s ravaged potency, the picture is unthinkable.

And yet! As satisfyingly as the pieces cohere — there isn’t a single throwaway without a payoff — and as much pleasure as Midsommar‘s craft offers, it’s also too smart to see its dumbness; the details are so finished that Aster misses the scuffs. The racial subtexts, yes. Turning the plot on the stereotype of the clinging, overwrought woman (we need a clinging, overwrought man for once). Characters who wait around too long for bad things to happen: Josh, Connie, and Simon would have seen Get Out, right? Those who think horror films shouldn’t be so cheap may revel in Midsommar; the rest of us may prefer the cheaper pleasures.

GRADE:   B

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