Movie Review: With the release of “Beau is Afraid,” Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” has been on my mind for its dreamlike horror elements and ability to defy genre conventions. Although not perfect, Aster’s sophomore effort continues to age like fine wine.
Ahead of the release for Ari Aster’s “Beau is Afraid,” I knew there was one movie I had to put back into the Blu-ray player and give it another shot. Not that I haven’t marveled at aspects of “Midsommar” during previous screenings of the film, but I’ve never been able to wrap my arms around it. I mean, how could you? Aster’s sophomore movie threatens you with every version of body horror, gross-out excessive images, and squirmy scenarios that’ll have you writhing long after they’re done.
But unlike Aster’s debut directing effort “Hereditary” – a move that redefined modern freakout flick and led the “elevated horror” subgenre to the big stage – “Midsommar” felt like eating empty calories. The images seared into my brain didn’t amount to the same commentary that “Hereditary” did. I hadn’t been able to crack the code of a movie that I desperately wanted to.
It doesn’t help that I’ve tried to force myself to like “Midsommar” a few times since the movie’s release in 2019. I had remarked beforehand that it may be the film that I’ve seen the most that I arguably like the least (however you quantify that). I love nearly every piece about it, that they don’t weave together for a film working in a slow, methodical structure that blossoms into a surrealist third act.
Yet, like I mentioned in the opening statement, I wanted to give it another go-around. After the announcement that “Beau is Afraid” does not necessarily belong to the horror genre exclusively, I knew I wanted to pick pieces of “Midsommar” out that could tie into a larger aesthetic standpoint beyond freaky shots of Toni Collette standing in a ceiling corner waiting to eviscerate her doomed son. After all, I’m not sure I would confine “Midsommar” to just the horror genre, either.
“Midsommar” is truly unlike anything made before it. It’s horror moments are few and far between, and the movie slowly holds its cards close to focus on Florence Pugh’s breakout star performance. The film relies on her character’s ability to adapt based on the unfortunate circumstances she’s been put into. It was evident at the time of this movie’s release, and it’s still evident now – Pugh could be the genre’s next scream queen, or one of the industry’s brightest actresses for the next decade, or even both.
The story does enough to justify many of the movie’s shocking events. “Midsommar” is increasingly daring as a visual spectacle compared to “Hereditary.” The scares aren’t as volatile, but they dig just as deep into your mind and cause you to reevaluate why you find certain filmmaking ideas interesting (“Midsommar” contains a truly, truly bizarre sex scene with Jack Reynor’s character that I’m still uncertain is real).
There are brilliant caricature performances by Will Poulter and William Jackson that help build up the movie’s bench and surrounding world. Poulter’s arrogance and mighty attitude serves as the movie’s comedic side, while Jackson’s intentions to use the “Midsommar” festivities for his thesis paper develops into a valuable B-plot and adds depth to various character motivations.
But even with all of these praises, I still struggle to pair the movie’s interest in shocking events with its core themes and intentions. I felt that “Hereditary” married the ideas of grief and loss with harrowing scenes perfectly. I would argue that Peter driving Charlie home stands as a core scene of the 2010s. Not just because it’s shocking and assaulting on the viewer, but because it helps the story in an necessary and ingenious way. While you walk out of the theater shocked at some of Ari Aster’s decisions in “Hereditary,” you don’t separate them from Aster’s thematic interests.
In “Midsommar,” however, the two don’t blend quite as neatly. The scenes of body horror and disgusting meals don’t feel as earned this time around. Each time something bizarre happens, it feels a bit more outlandish and as if Aster was throwing darts at a board to decide what to do next. It isn’t close to as grounded as “Hereditary,” and that may be why I prefer that film over “Midsommar” a bit more.
But even with my consistent struggles with the story occasionally permeating my experience once again, I found more about this film that I liked this time around. It’s been a couple years since my last time viewing “Midsommar,” and I was shocked to see how well it’s paced. Many critics are up in arms about the runtime for “Beau is Afraid,” but “Midsommar” isn’t necessarily a short movie as it stretches to nearly 2.5 hours. It doesn’t feel close to that runtime as the resolution is set in motion with about an hour remaining.
And while I harped on many of the visually impactful elements not feeling as earned or rewarding as Aster’s previous work, the opening moments to “Midsommar” still hit. Florence Pugh’s performance after hearing about the death of her family members still resonates with each repeat viewing. Again, the movie doesn’t work without the volatile swings in emotions from Dani. This is just one of Pugh’s great scenes that are littered throughout.
Perhaps on my tenth viewing of “Midsommar,” it’ll click and be a masterpiece. For now, I’ll still sit and admire it, and not criticize someone for deeming it a modern tentpole film. Maybe a decade from now I’ll read this back and think of myself as film illiterate. Maybe “Beau is Afraid” will unlock it for me. But not now, not this time around. If you are a bear advocate, don’t watch this movie.