MIDSOMMAR: Brightly lit, darkly comic horror

Ari Aster’s second feature film is no Hereditary. In fact, it has more in common with Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! than it does his feature debut. Midsommar isn’t good or bad. It’s weak on metaphor and strong on hilarious WTF moments. It’s made with the stupid confidence of a man who’s been told he’s a genius, when he’s still just working to earn the label. Should you see it? Yes. But be prepared to hate it.

I was one of the people who, after watching Aster’s wrenching horror debut Hereditary four times, was excited to see what Aster would do next. Whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t Midsommar. The film, about a young woman named Dani (Florence Pugh) who clings to a bad relationship after a horrifying personal tragedy, doesn’t seem that far off at first. Those initial 15 minutes or so are brutal and intense, with a clarity of vision that makes watching Aster’s films a dark delight.

But as Dani joins her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his anthropologist buddies on at trip to a mysterious Swedish commune, the pace never picks up. You’re going along for the ride on this one, expecting something powerful to happen and constantly being let down, sans the Lanthimosian weirdness of the cloistered community.

Thematically, it all makes sense. Every plot contrivance seems intentional. Every terrible occurrence or stupid character decision is rationalized and then ignored. Even the films most brutal moments you can see coming from a distance, which dulls their impact, but seemingly by design. Yes, Aster is a great filmmaker. He’s showing off here.

All of this works counter to the story and characters, though. The deep commitment to making this film feel like every awful relationship you’ve ever been in seems like a Shayamalan-level overreach. (Oddly enough, the films heralding the arrival of both directors starred Toni Collette.)

There’s a moment in the movie where Jack, who forgot Dani’s birthday because of course he would, grabs a piece of cake from somewhere and tries, but over and over again fails, to light a single candle while awkwardly singing happy birthday. Most of the experience watching Midsommar makes the audience feel like Dani to Aster’s Jack. Whatever we’re supposed to get out of the movie, it’s shallow and forced. Also like Jack, who only cares about what he wants to get out of the trip for his doctoral thesis, Aster lacks regard for his audience while he overindulges in his Cinema… with a capital “c.”

Despite all this, Midsommar turns out to be a hoot, with the darkly comic sensibilities of Daniel Sloss. Sure, we don’t have characters to care about or a story to follow, but the entire experience is ridiculous enough to keep you engaged for the bloated two and a half hour running time.

A lesser filmmaker would have made a better genre piece. A greater filmmaker might have found something more profound in the Millennial un-romance. But Aster? He did neither. That will undoubtedly divide audiences, even if it’s for no good reason. Still, you can’t help but admire just how off the rails a movie so obsessively composed turns out to be.