That humor is intentional (at least at first), and the most successful part of the writer/director’s eagerly anticipated sophomore outing, which concerns a couple on the rocks that, in the company of friends, travels to Sweden to attend an ancient pagan festival. Midsommar, in theaters July 3, is a slow-motion portrait of an inevitable break up, and it generates consistent laughs from its depiction of people avoiding conflict at all costs, no matter the negative personal consequences, as well as the blatant lies men and women tell themselves rather than facing obvious truths in order to escape misery. As a bleak comedy of romantic deterioration, it can be wittily incisive.
Too bad, then, that the film is also determined to be a grand nightmare—and one that wrongly assumes it needs 2.5 hours to get its allegorical job done. Like its predecessor, there’s next to nothing new to see here, unless you’re unfamiliar with Robin Hardy’s 1973 classic The Wicker Man (or its inferior 2006 Hollywood remake starring Nicolas Cage, famous for begetting a plethora of memes). Nor is there anything approaching a truly chilling moment, save for the cheaply exploitative close-ups of mutilated faces and deformed children—which, alongside female leads in freak-out distress, is now officially an Aster trademark.
The most unique incident is a late scene in which a gaggle of nude young and old ladies stand around a man and woman having sex on a flower bed, mimicking their moans and pushing the guy’s ass to help him with his thrusting. Typical of the film as a whole, it can’t quite decide if it wants to be hilarious or alarming, and consequently comes across as just tonally confused and absurd. That’s still better, however, than its straightforward attempts at terror, which fall uniformly flat. All the shrieking strings and sudden grotesqueries in the world can’t elevate this work of “elevated horror,” a term that Midsommar reveals to be an empty buzzword for wannabe-scary movies whose affectations get in the way of actual scares.
Still, Aster’s game has moderately improved since Hereditary, as evidenced by his early portrayal of Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor). Their bond is predicated on her neediness and willful blindness to his cold indifference, and his selfishness and cowardly inability to let Dani down lightly and move on with his life. They’re a co-dependent mess, and though both would clearly benefit from finding someone new, they’re instead ensnared further by the death of Dani’s family. Christian is hardly a comforting shoulder to cry on, but since he didn’t cut and run before this tragedy, he winds up stuck with Dani. After a fight over his decision to go to Sweden (which he didn’t tell Dani about), Christian is forced to invite her along on the trip, much to the chagrin of his friends Mark (Will Poulter), Josh (William Jackson Harper), and native Swede Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), whose farm is hosting the festivities, which take place once every 90 years.
Aster gets amusing mileage out of the awkward reactions born from Dani and Christian’s strained situation, with Poulter’s Mark—who encourages Christian to ditch his clingy partner—proving the funniest of the lot, first via loud-mouthed complaints, and then through silent, judgmental glances. Regardless of such unhappiness, the crew soon makes it to Pele’s native commune, where everyone dresses in white robes and frocks, wears flowery headdresses, and performs strange rites in the never-setting sunlight. They meet two other outsiders, Simon (Archie Madekwe) and Connie (Ellora Torchia), as well as a collection of locals, and if these cheery Swedes strike you as more than a little malevolent, well, you’re one step ahead of the film’s protagonists, who are too busy concentrating on thesis projects (Josh and Christian), getting laid (Mark), and desperately searching for solace via a loved one (Dani) to notice warning signs.
There’s really only one way this can end—with pagan ritualistic sacrifice of some nasty sort—which makes Midsommar’s protracted plotting so frustrating. Aster has a fondness for staging drawn-out sequences (frequently in slow-motion) and then cutting abruptly from them (say, to smashed-up corpses), the better to deliver an unnerving jolt. It’s a gimmicky device, and compounded by his lingering on gruesome images that are neither as icky nor as meaningful as he imagines—his camera’s extended, not-turning-away-from-horrors gaze suggests a weightiness that doesn’t materialize. Moreover, by repeatedly glancing at the commune’s hand-drawn murals and tapestries, which illustrate ancient evil customs involving pubic-hair love potions and sliced palms, he unnecessarily foreshadows the craziness to come, thus negating its impact.
Fortunately, even after wasting time with a pre-arrival mushroom trip that serves little purpose, Aster develops a passable mood of otherworldly dread at the commune, thanks to a ceremony at a cliff that ends in nasty fashion. From there, Midsommar piles on the lunacy, replete with an Elephant Man-style oracle, a dance contest in which the last person standing is dubbed the “May Queen,” and a dead skin mask that would make Leatherface (and Slayer) proud. Collaborating with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, Aster turns sunshiny sights sinister, and in Pugh, he has a face fit for torment. As befitting a predicament of mounting hysteria, there’s rarely a shot of the acclaimed Lady Macbeth and Fighting with My Family actress in which she doesn’t appear on the verge of tears—or outright madness.
While Pugh’s anguished and screamy turn is a bit one-note, that’s mostly a function of Aster’s script, which, after establishing Dani and Christian’s fraught dynamics, does little to develop them. Instead, external threats exacerbate preexisting problems in a manner that feels half-hearted. Midsommar has a tendency to get sidetracked on its spookier elements at the expense of its central couple, taking detours involving Josh and Mark that lead nowhere interesting, and dawdling on intimations of danger—be it from Pele (a transparent wolf in sheep’s clothing) or a red-headed girl named Maja (Isabelle Grill)—that cause Dani and Christian’s disintegrating bond to get lost in the narrative shuffle.
Aster’s story is, at heart, about a grief-stricken woman and narcissistic man who need to separate and yet can’t figure out how to be apart—and the vengeful ugliness that ensues from that failure. All too often, however, Midsommar stumbles in melding its larger thematic concerns and its shock-value impulses, and that only becomes more pronounced as the material lumbers its way toward an anticlimactic finale whose import-laden execution is at odds with its been-here, done-that inevitability. Aster may still have a great horror film in him, but on the basis of his initial two features, he’d be wise to make his own clean break with clichés.