After directing Hereditary, my favorite movie of 2018, Ari Aster is back to torment us yet again with Midsommar. And honestly? I’ve rarely felt as physically shaken or disturbed by a movie in my entire life, but whether that is a scathing critique or a glowing endorsement is something I’ve been grappling with ever since I left the theater.
There’s no denying that the movie is immaculate on a technical level. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, as Aster blends long takes with an almost balladic choreography of movement. All the colors pop off the screen in the movie’s oversaturated daytime setting and when this is juxtaposed with the horrifying imagery (there are at least five shots in this movie that will be forever seared inside my mind), the results are incredibly effective. Even the editing is noticeably precise. Every cut or transition feels deliberate, masterfully building tension while also creating a sense of disillusionment in the viewer that mirrors what the characters are experiencing on screen; Aster truly makes you feel like you’re there stuck amidst a murderous cult in Sweden and you’re losing your mind along the way.
But the technical elements to any movie are secondary to the story, atmosphere, and characters, which is where Midsommar gets a bit more complicated. The movie is effectively a relationship drama with messages about grief woven in, and when Midsommar embraces this, it shines…but note my use of the word ‘when’. The further the story progresses, the more Midsommar loses its focus on the humanity of its characters and instead resorts to just slapping its audience in the face with gratuitous images. I’m not kidding: the last 45 minutes of this movie is so incessant in its need to show us bizarre, upsetting things that it almost feels like total nonsense. There is no level of nuance, and it’s hardly scary, either, leaving me with an aftertaste that had me questioning what the heck I just watched.
It’s a shame, because the first 90 minutes of the movie that focuses on the relationship are exceptional and far more grounded. Florence Pugh is terrific, and her chemistry with Jack Reynor feels so authentic that I fully bought into all their arguments, in part due to her performance and also how Reynor walks the line between ‘terrible boyfriend’ and ‘flawed guy somewhat trying to make amends’. And as twisted as the movie is, it can sometimes be hilarious. There were seriously moments where I laughed harder than I have at any movie this year (besides Long Shot), mostly thanks to Will Poulter doing a great job as the comic relief. But like the relationship drama, this sense of dark comedy essentially goes out the window for the last third of the movie, which is arguably the time that it was needed most.
To give you some perspective, I’m the twisted person who thought Hereditary was fun. But even I acknowledge that Midsommar just goes too far. The potential really was there, but then Aster uses his established credibility from Hereditary to make a finale that completely goes off the rails and abandons most foundations of its story. Despite all this, I still have a deep admiration for Aster as a filmmaker, and even some for the movie itself. I advocate for movies that engage their audience, and Midsommar more than captured my attention for its 140 minute runtime, and I’ve thought about little else since walking out of the theater. But unless I see it again and “get” the last 45 minutes, there is no way I can wholeheartedly recommend the movie in good conscience.