Midsommar ★★★

Spoilers below.

Ari Aster needs to stop writing his own screenplays.

This suffers from the same major weakness as Aster's first film, Hereditary—an intriguing initial thematic setup is essentially abandoned for the majority of its narrative, only to be acknowledged quickly at the end after little actual development. Midsommar introduces the topics of traumatic grief, imbalanced emotional labor in romantic relationships, and casual misogyny in its first twenty minutes—all of which are very rich sources of horror to draw from—but doesn't really do anything with them. Aster neglects to weave these themes through the main storyline in any concrete way, and by the time the pagan cult festival has begun, they're largely dispensed with. Sure, the goings-on at the celebration are particularly gendered and are managed through systematic gaslighting, but, at best, it's a nebulous exploration of those early central concerns. What does the Swedish cult represent? Does its coercive atmosphere serve as a parallel for Dani and Christian's unhealthy relationship? Does its exaltation of women and the final look on Dani's face instead reflect emancipatory potential from such a relationship and the patriarchy at large? Or is this ostensible empowerment belied by the cult's rigidly programmed use of women for reproductive purposes? It seems like the film itself doesn't know.

Aster has described Midsommar as a "breakup movie," but Dani's decision to enact that fatal breakup comes at a narratively perplexing juncture. Christian proves himself to be a bad boyfriend all throughout the film, but the straw that breaks the camel's back is oddly chosen. He is drugged with a beverage that is explicitly described as one that "breaks down [his] defenses and opens [him] for the influence"—which he initially refuses, and then is pressured to drink—and, when he's reached a clearly stupefied state, is pushed to have sex with the young cult member Maja. Dani tearfully witnesses this situation immediately before making her choice to have Christian killed in the ceremony, which implies that her assumption that he had intentionally cheated is what ultimately clinches her decision. The film had already consistently cast Christian as a selfish, distant, and apathetic partner, so it would have made more sense on a plot and character level for his tryst with Maja to be a conscious act of his own volition. Dani's murderous choice is also strangely hazy—she's still under the influence of hallucinogenics, and her ruling as May Queen is presented as very ambiguous in its empowerment. She seems like a pawn of the cult, rather than someone acting out of her own agency. Dani is the most sympathetic character of the film, so her cult-aided revenge against Christian should feel deserved, but the cult is a false support system—their love is entirely conditional—and now it seems as though she's trapped. What are we meant to feel here?

The film begins with Dani finding out that her family has died in tragic circumstances. How does this event tie in thematically? How does her grief inform the larger story, and how is it dealt with, other than the few moments of her anguish when she is reminded of their deaths? And why is her witnessing her boyfriend die in a fire, statistically most likely from the smoke inhalation rather than the burns—similarly to the car exhaust inhalation that caused the deaths of her sister and parents—implied to somehow be cathartic rather than triggering? Why are her family's deaths waved off with a callous "my sister was bipolar"? I don't think that Aster understands trauma, he just tosses it in as window dressing. Two films in, domestic suffering just seems like Aster's directorial trademark as opposed to a subject for serious exploration, much like his unpleasant penchant for featuring physical disability as a way to ratchet up the shock factor and nothing more.

It's too bad that the film is so sloppy in its writing, because it's competent on almost all other levels. Florence Pugh gives a great performance, the concept of a horror film shot almost entirely in daylight is novel, the visceral scares are gruesomely effective, and the cinematography is beautiful. I just wish Aster's films could properly and consistently express meaning to match their technical proficiency.

Theatrical Cut Rating: 5.75/10