Ari Aster

Midsommar

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Dani has experienced recent emotional trauma. When her boyfriend invites her on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to a solstice festival in Sweden, she thinks it is just what she needs. The sunny, idyllic location is the perfect setting for the festivities. Yet the rituals become increasingly bizarre and violent, threatening the lives of Dani and her friends.

Writer and director Ari Aster (Hereditary) has created another work of art with his sophomore feature film, Midsommar. This film takes on a different kind of cult that focuses more on the pastoral horror seen in films like The Wicker Man. The audience is first introduced to Dani as she is going through a very traumatic time in her life. She gets roped into what was supposed to be a guys’ trip to Sweden for a festival that only happens every 90 years in a remote village. The insanity that ensues is beautiful, disturbing, sometimes humorous, and everything in-between. Aster clearly has an affinity for paganism and cults and he takes great care in creating an intricate mythology.

There are two aspects of the film that give it quite a bit of intensity. The first is Dani’s emotional issues, which are exacerbated by the tension in her relationship with her boyfriend and the events of the festival. She is constantly at odds with her own emotions. Even when everything is falling apart around Dani, she tries her best to hold herself and her relationship together. The second is with the festival itself. While the events become increasingly horrific, there is an even deeper dilemma that arises with the rituals. Many of the outsiders who are in Sweden for the festival are anthropology students. They show how there is a delicate balance when observing different cultures. Sometimes what you see is horrifying to you, but from that culture’s perspective it is normal. I studied anthropology in college, so I can understand the moral quandary that comes from wanting to be respectful of different customs and cultures, even when faced with something shocking. The way the rituals in Midsommar gradually become more strange and violent allows for tension to build while also conveying the increasing difficulty the outsiders have in deciding when things have gone too far.

One of the most surprising plot points of Midsommar is the underlying theme of home and family. Home can mean different things to different people, but the common thread is usually having a place to belong and being around people who care about you. Much of Dani’s journey relates to family and the need to feel as if she’s at home. The character arc Aster creates in relation to Dani’s quest for that feeling of home is compelling and ends in an entirely satisfying way.

On top of the intricate and suspenseful story, Midsommar also has powerful performances. Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth, Malevolent) stars as Dani. Pugh makes Dani a fascinating and sympathetic character. Her portrayal especially shines when she conveys Dani’s emotional trauma in a way that is absolutely gut-wrenching. Jack Reynor (Free Fire, Sing Street) plays Dani’s boyfriend, Christian. In many ways Christian is the polar opposite of Dani. Reynor manages to make Christian a very unlikeable character, especially when he is gaslighting Dani and just generally being a terrible person. Normally it is important for couples in film to have great on-screen chemistry. That isn’t the case for Pugh and Reynor as their lack of chemistry only helps to tell the story of their unfortunate relationship.

After only two films, Aster has managed to create a signature style for his films. His films always have gorgeous production design, unique transitions between scenes, and he always has a simple signature sound used throughout the film. Most horror films are shrouded in darkness, yet Midsommar takes the opposite approach. Almost the entire film is drenched in sunlight and has vibrant colors. Not only does the outdoor setting have this appearance, but the various buildings in the Swedish village have this same quality. This is a bold choice that pays off because of how well Aster makes even the most cheery-looking place seem sinister. The cinematography helps to make the production design and the transitions even more eye-catching. In Hereditary, Aster used a slight clucking noise made by one of the stars to build tension throughout the film. Aster repeated this method in Midsommar, only this time it is with a strange, quick breath out and in. This sound is haunting and memorable. It takes the most innocuous sound and gives it an edge that can insight terror.

Midsommar brings terror into the light in this shocking pastoral horror film. Aster perfectly exemplifies his talents as both a director and a screenwriter, making it clear that he is a true master of horror. The film creates a fascinating pagan mythology set in a remote village, then builds on that mythology in disturbing ways. As if that isn’t compelling enough, Aster also uses Dani’s character to convey trauma and the human need for home. Pugh’s portrayal of Dani is haunting and will stick with audiences. There will likely be audience members who don’t like this film because it isn’t scary enough for them, because of the brightly lit setting, or because of some of the more strange rituals. I believe the film is a work of art and I can’t wait to see what Aster comes up with next.

OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10

Hereditary

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Annie’s estranged mother has passed away. In the wake of the death, Annie and the rest of her family feel the effects of the loss. It leads to Annie’s mental state spiraling out of control as she experiences blow after blow. While learning new and bizarre things about her mother, it becomes clear that the death of the family matriarch caused a ripple effect that will change their lives forever.

Writer and director Ari Aster takes audiences on a strange and unexpected journey in his feature film debut. One of the most compelling aspects of the plot for Hereditary is that the story continues to surprise and go in unique directions. I made an effort to avoid all advertising for the film after the release of the initial trailer. With only this very limited exposure, I still had an idea of what I thought the film would be about. However, as soon as the film begins, all preconceived notions are thrown out the window. At regular intervals audiences will be shocked by events in the film that completely take the plot in new and thrilling directions. There are times when the film feels like a psychological film and other times it feels like a supernatural film; yet, every moment is filled with anxiety and paranoia. Each revelation gives new details into the horrifying events taking place, driving the plot forward as it zigs and zags in ways you never see coming. It is the kind of film that is difficult to truly explain without dissecting the plot, but that would lead to spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it yet.

This may not be what audiences and critics traditionally call “scary”; however, Hereditary is truly disturbing and terrifying to watch. Aster brilliantly chose to incorporate incredibly subtle details from start to finish. These details immediately put the audience on edge by letting them know something isn’t quite right, they just aren’t sure how yet. These details are also often downright frightening. The wrongness of what Aster puts on the silver screen is something that audiences are able to feel just as much as see. There is maybe only one genuine jump scare in the entire film, but regardless, the entire film overflows with images that make viewers feel the anxiety and fear right along with the characters. The film is filled with a genuine sense of dread, leaving you deeply unsettled in both a visceral and disturbing way, more so than any jump scare ever could.

Much of these subtle details and terrifying images come from the beautiful way in which the film is shot. There are numerous stunning transitions and ways in which various scenes are framed that both add beauty to the film while also emphasizing the more disturbing parts. Aster also perfectly utilizes miniatures, made by Annie in the film, seamlessly weaving between the real world and the miniature models of the real world. The sets and locations add to this as well. The house where the Graham family lives is gorgeous and dark, giving it an eerie feel even before anything weird happens. There is a very neutral, dark color pallet in the film casting a shadow over the entire family. Every location gives a sense of isolation, from the houses to the art supply store. Even the sparingly used practical effects are subtle and dark as they are meant to heighten the paranoia rather than startle or scare audiences. These elements truly make the film just as stunning as it is disturbing.

The plot is carried by some absolutely superb performances. Toni Collette (Krampus, The Sixth Sense) gives what could be the performance of her career as Annie. Annie has lived a difficult life filled with tragedy, thanks in large part to her bizarre mother. Collette does an amazing job of conveying Annie as a woman who inwardly is strong, but on the outside she appears to others as unstable. She plays with the audience, making us wonder if Annie is sane, or if she is just as disturbed as her mother was. In many of the more intense scenes, Collette is simply perfect in the way she displays emotion and terror and helplessness. It is as if the role was made for her. One of the most surprising performances came from Alex Wolff (My Friend Dahmer, Patriots Day) as Annie’s son, Peter. Watching how Peter reacts as his family slowly falls apart, as well as how he reacts to the increasingly strange happenings, is absolutely mesmerizing. This was an unexpected performance from Wolff, and it makes me look forward to seeing him in more films. Finally, there is Milly Shapiro, in her film debut as Charlie. Shapiro somehow makes Charlie come across as both innocent and eerie, which is no easy feat. It is never clear how much or how little Charlie knows about what is going on around her, and it only adds to the anxiousness of the plot. The entire cast gives the film a haunting and emotional edge.

Hereditary is a disturbing descent into madness that highlights all the best parts of the horror genre. It takes you in directions you never imagined, and it fills you with a deep sense of anxiety, all the while giving audiences a completely unique plot. Combined with fantastic performances and gorgeously dark visuals, it delivers the perfect horror film. I’m confident this film will reveal new revelations and insights each time it is watched, due to how perfectly Aster incorporated minute details that may be missed on the first (or even second) viewing. With how minimal Aster kept many aspects the film, it is hard to believe how truly effective and terrifying every moment is. There is not a single thing I would change about this film, and I honestly can’t wait to see it again. My biggest piece of advice for fans going into this film for the first time: try your hardest to absorb every precise detail on the screen. You never know what might be important later on.

OVERALL RATING: 10/10