Midsommar ★½

Ari Aster is the definitive One Perfect Shot filmmaker. Supported by Pawel Pogorzelski's nominally gorgeous cinematography, Aster nonetheless crafts images that look nice when screencapped and shared but are ultimately hollow and bereft of context. His films to date are structured similarly: the first 15 minutes laboriously, transparently establish the theme, at which point that theme is broadly forgotten for the next 90-100 minutes as Aster follows increasingly inert and meaningless text-level subplots, then the last 15-20 minutes return to the theme with the smug triumph of a man who thinks he's really surprised you with what this movie is really about.

Midsommar telegraphs its true purpose in its cold open, depicting the shittiness of men who contribute nothing to the balance of emotional responsibility in relationships. That is a fantastic subject for horror, but no sooner has the film established Christian's selfishness and his friends' casual misogyny than it pivots to the surface-level creepy beauty of a Swedish commune retreat. As he did in Hereditary, Aster fills the screen with empty signs and signifiers, such as a tapestry that casually lays out the cult's breeding program in plain view of visitors meant to be duped into dark purposes, or, in what is becoming a seriously bad trend, a disfigured, disabled child presented as inherently unnerving. Aster loses focus almost immediately, occasionally circling back around to remind the audience of Christian's emotional obliviousness in the most blunt terms imaginable, completely unrelated to the narrative turn to laying out the cult in the most tediously thorough ways.

Compare the total disconnect of text and subtext to how, say, the fear of rape totally and completely suffuses the likes of Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby or Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, where story, meaning and style are all in horrific unity in developing their themes through images and the jagged, subjective rendering of plot.

Or, to pick a film closer in spirit to Midsommar, think of Possession. Both films were inspired by their makers' messy breakup, but Zulawski reflected himself in the denied man while Aster sees himself in the unfairly neglected Dani. Zulawski's motivation, undoubtedly misogynistic in initial intent, ultimately implicated himself as much as his proxy wife, revealing a violent streak and the husband's revelation that he never bothered to truly know his wife. Aster, wrapping himself in a more ostensibly progressive viewpoint of Dani's supposed awakening to her exploitation, ultimately undermines it by stressing his own sense of victimhood. I'd love to see a Scream 2-esque sequel about a horror movie breaking out on the set of Midsommar, with the villain the soft Good Guy director eager to relieve his own wounded pride without wishing to seem like an aggrieved man.

Hereditary had the advantage of performances from Toni Collette and Alex Wolff that understood the movie that Aster wanted to make if he had the talent to modulate mood, atmosphere or narrative for longer than five minutes at a time, and the actors' intensity floated what was, at heart, a woefully undercooked rumination on sins of the father (or mother, as it were). But all of the actors in Midsommar make the mistake of playing to Aster as he actually is, resulting in inert, performative displays of grief or shock so hollow that even when the American visitors witness a brutal cult activity, no one bothers to even feign fear or disturbance for more than a minute. Pugh has nothing to tether herself to, so she drifts between numb acceptance and the occasional outburst of shock or grief that Aster arranges so lovingly that whatever emotional impact the moment might have had is lost to his simpering presentation.

Shoutout to The Haxan Cloak, though, who like Colin Stetson before him gives Aster a score of true menace and constant dread that the director does not remotely deserve given the flaccid bore that the music is for.

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