Monday, November 04, 2019

"Midsommar": review

Some years back, I went through a brief period during which I discovered and, with morbid and prurient curiosity, plowed through its files. In case you don't know what is, it's a website full of ghoulish photographs of actual violence and death—mainly death. Want to see what it's like in the immediate aftermath of a bloody car accident? They've got you covered. Want to see what happens when a rifle bullet takes off the top of someone's head? There's a photo in there somewhere. Want the bug-eyed faces of people who've been hanged? Yup. Murder victims? Check. Sawed-off limbs? Open wounds? Late-stage deadly disease? It's all there. The site is aptly named. I browsed this for a concentrated period of time, and these days, I wonder whether that experience affected me in some deep way. I've always had a high tolerance for gore, but strolling through the precincts of may have given me an overdose of the gross.

Whether my tour through that website inured me, or my native tolerance for the ghastly protected me, I was well prepared for some of the supposedly shocking scenes in 2019's "Midsommar," a folk-horror film directed by Ari Aster, who gave the world "Hereditary" (which I still haven't seen). The story mostly takes place in a commune in Sweden; the main focus is on the deteriorating romantic relationship between two American graduate students, and on the grad students' varying reactions to the cultic horrors they witness while at the commune. Just as Season 1 of "True Detective" might serve as a warning to stay away from Louisiana, "Midsommar" is the perfect warning for all Americans to stay the hell out of Sweden, lest you end up being turned into a blood eagle.

Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh, recently seen in "Fighting with My Family") is an emotional wreck. As the story begins, Dani has just received a disturbingly final-sounding text message from her bipolar sister Terri (Klaudia Csányi), and it turns out that Terri has killed both her parents and herself. Now the sole survivor of this family tragedy, Dani has no one to latch on to, least of all her increasingly distant boyfriend Christian (Jack Hughes), who has been wanting out of this relationship for a while. Christian and his circle of anthropology grad-student friends are planning to go to Sweden in a few weeks; Dani finds out about this only belatedly and gets upset that Christian never bothered to tell her about the trip. Christian reluctantly invites Dani along, and the group of Americans, led by Swede and fellow grad student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), soon find themselves in the idyllic region of Hälsingland. Pelle tells everyone that he grew up in the commune they're visiting; everyone in the commune is like family to him, and he wants his American friends to feel welcome.

Things get strange when the group takes psilocybin and begins hallucinating things. Dani has flashes of her dead family members, and of grass seemingly growing out of her feet, as if the earth were claiming her; others in the group freak out about how it's 9 p.m. but still as bright as if it were late morning. Pelle gives his guests a tour of the commune and explains certain aspects of the culture. It turns out that Pelle's people believe that a human life follows the seasons in four eighteen-year segments: from birth to eighteen is the spring of youth; from eighteen to thirty-six is the summer of life, when a person is expected to be on a spiritual pilgrimage; from thirty-six to fifty-four, the autumn of one's existence is the time of labor; from fifty-four to seventy-two is the winter of life, when an elder is expected to be a mentor in the community. "What happens after seventy-two?" Dani asks. Pelle takes a finger and makes a slashing gesture across his throat. He smiles as if he's joking, but the viewer immediately knows this is a harbinger of things to come. And sure enough, on the first day of the commune's nine-day midsummer celebration—an event that occurs once every ninety years—the Americans are horrified when they witness an important ceremony: the ättestupa, in which two seventy-two-year-old members of the commune have one final, ceremonial meal, then throw themselves off a local cliff as a way of returning to the greater harmony of nature on their own terms, before age can rob them of their dignity. A British couple that is also visiting is aghast at what they've just seen: the old woman who throws herself off the cliff successfully smashes into the rock below and kills herself, but her male companion somehow lands feet-first, brutally shattering his legs—an event that leaves him screaming in agony. The commune is prepared for this eventuality, however: several members stride up to the screaming man and crush his skull with several blows from a huge wooden hammer. The British couple decides to leave; they've seen enough. As you might guess, this will be the last we ever see of the couple... at least until they reappear in, shall we say, greatly altered form by the end of the story.

The American grad students are in turmoil. For some, there is a definite desire to flee, but for others, like Josh (William Jackson Harper), this is the opportunity of a lifetime to study one culture's way of celebrating the midsummer days. Josh puts aside his revulsion and elects to keep digging to the extent allowed by the commune's elders. One by one, though, the Americans around Dani start to disappear; with each disappearance, some blithe, casual explanation is given ("Oh, we drove him to the local train station"). Pretty soon, it's just Dani and Christian, and Christian—who has long been drifting apart from Dani—gets seduced or hoodwinked into a sex ritual with one of the local girls, who has just come of breeding age. Dani, meanwhile, gets pulled into a dance contest to determine the commune's May Queen for that year; Dani wins, and this has dark implications for later in the story.

"Midsommar" is a slow burn of a film. It takes its time in building the world of the commune/cult, doing its best to leave the viewer with a sense of dawning horror. As in the recently reviewed "The Autopsy of Jane Doe," the characters realize they need to get the fuck out only when it's far too late to do so. Dani, for her part, gets sucked into the commune's weird customs and rituals, and it's up to the viewer to decide whether (1) she has finally found the emotional refuge she's been seeking since the deaths of her parents and depressed sister, or (2) she has finally gone over the cliff's edge into full-on insanity. (Perhaps she's done both.)

Beautifully photographed (the film was made in Hungary; Amazon Prime Video's trivia notes indicate that one of many cinematic "goofs" in the film is that shadow lengths don't match the stated time of day at several points because Hungary isn't far enough north to be at Scandinavian latitudes) and taking full advantage of lighting and landscape, "Midsommar" has a fairly simple plot that plays out with slow deliberateness. It's a bit boring and draggy in parts, but it weaves together an atmosphere of tension and dread that, while it didn't fully suck me in, did cause a twinge of uneasiness at times. There were no jump scares to speak of; any jump moments were telegraphed far in advance. If anything, I felt as if director Ari Aster were going for something like the dreadful reveals from 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs" (which also features a blood eagle, if I'm not mistaken). Moments of surreality punctuate the film; when Dani is declared the May Queen and given a crown of flowers to wear, we see the flowers on her head pulsating eerily, along with the plants adorning the furniture where she sits. The film succeeds at making the viewer feel as if his individuality were slowly seeping away—partly through the communal will of the villagers, and partly through the pernicious effects of the psychoactive plants used in the commune's various ceremonies.

The movie touches on some interesting issues, like that of cultural relativism. Just how open-minded can a researcher be when people are being fed hallucinogens, being lied to, and being murdered? How do you observe all of this with clinical neutrality, especially when there's a good chance that you're going to be the commune's next victim? "Midsommar" may also contain some intertextual commentary; reviewers far savvier than I am have noted the film's bald-faced similarities to "The Wicker Man" (from 1973, not the Nicolas Cage one from 2006), as well as to another film from the early 2000s titled "Midsummer" (English spelling this time), with a main character who is also named Christian. At the same time, the movie fails to transcend the conservative morality that pervades most horror films: in horror, the people who die generally have it coming because they've done something bad or something transgressive. Teens engaging in premarital sex get killed in slasher films; in "Midsommar," scholarly curiosity, which leads to the violation of a holy place, is also punishable by death: you can never get away with disrespecting the sacred. The movie also punishes boyfriends who are insensitive dicks to their traumatized and grieving girlfriends.

While the film's acting and cinematography are all top-notch, the one thing that truly bothered me had to do with one aspect of the world-building: the way the commune/cult kills people doesn't make much sense. Each person is killed in a different way, but despite the film's emphasis on the anthropological aspects of commune life, there's no attempt to tie the killings together through a unifying theology, cosmology, or ritual scheme. The murders seem sloppily random in technique: I've already mentioned the blood eagle, which befalls one of the earlier victims but isn't discovered until late in the story; another American is killed and skinned, with his killer wearing his skin, Leatherface-style. Yet another victim is killed and dismembered, his leg being planted upright in a garden; a different victim is killed in some mysterious way, and his major orifices are stuffed with tree branches and other plants. References are made throughout the film to the runic alphabet, but we viewers are never made privy as to the runes' deeper symbolic significance. I felt as if there were several missed opportunities to build out this world just a little bit more; the killings would have been much more horrifying had they fit together into some discernible pattern. Instead, the audience is left either to struggle with the meaning of each individual killing, or to lump everything together indiscriminately as examples of horrific violence from an unpredictable cult.

So "Midsommar" presents us with a mix of good and bad. If you're not tuned in to questions of ritual and ceremony and religious significance, then all you'll see, and recoil from, is the commune/cult's scary weirdness. If you're like me, and you want to know more about what's really making these people tick, cosmologically speaking, the film will be a big disappointment to you. As I wrote earlier, I didn't find the movie scary, and the gross parts weren't all that gross to me. The movie's acting, cinematography, and other technical aspects might make it worth your while, but the story strikes me as lacking substance. I saw some reviewers humorously refer to this film as "The Wizard of Oz for perverts" and "a breakup movie for the horror crowd," given how Dani and Christian's fraying relationship stands at the center of the plot. I can get the humor: there were definitely moments when I laughed out loud at the proceedings (Christian breaks away from the sex ritual and runs around naked for a bit; that was pretty funny) and couldn't take the movie seriously. But you, Dear Reader, might see something in "Midsommar" that I'm missing. Perhaps, unlike me, you're not inured to gory violence, and you'll be deeply affected by the sight of an old woman's cliff-smashed face—or lack thereof. All I can say is: your mileage may vary.

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