Horror Gets Pretty

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A Midsommar Review

(Note: this review is based on the theatrical cut of Midsommar. The later released extended cut of the film contains about 30 minutes of extra content. This cut is currently in theaters and will be released digitally on September 24 exclusively through Apple TV.)

It would be easy to throw Midsommar into the pile of zero-substance shock horror films purely based on the marketing behind it, but that would be doing the film a major disservice. Beautifully demented and deceptively sympathetic, this second effort from director Ari Aster certainly belongs in the horror genre, and yet it contains few of the tropes and cliches people have come to expect from such films. There are no jumpscares, no loud music cues, and no shapeshifting clowns. Instead, Midsommar focuses on being uncomfortable, choosing to frame its horror more through subtext. Top it off with a story that favors relatability and catharsis over pure scares, and it makes for an experience that deserves to be digested rather than scarfed down.

Much of the runtime is spent in a Swedish commune during the celebration of a ceremony that happens once every 90 years. This backdrop allows for Midsommar to offer vibrant and visually stunning scenery offset with some truly gruesome body horror, creating a delicate balance between events and setting that perfectly meshes with the themes of depression and rebirth present throughout. That balance also helps establish the pacing of the film which, while deliberate, never feels slow and helps build the tension necessary for the buildup and payoff of each scene. Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor do a fantastic job of selling their connected journey through Hell; their performances deliver a real sense of authenticity and chemistry that carries the film along. Pugh especially stands out the most, bringing multiple dimensions of pathos to every scene, even while some of the other supporting performances lag slightly behind.

The relationship between the two leads creates the backbone of Midsommar, one that is constantly tested throughout the film. Every scene brings a new challenge, either through explicit dialogue or more often implicitly with the events surrounding them. That more subtle storytelling can sometimes come at a cost though. Aster attempting to assign symbolism to everything on screen is admirable, but implying equal weight to everything being shown can make it difficult to identify what is actually important and what is just window dressing setting up the next scene. This also impacts later discussions of the film, as they are likely to lean more heavily on the visuals themselves than on the messages Aster buries within.

Even when the emphasis Aster puts on visual storytelling does falter in execution, Midsommar fully delivers on the promise delivered by the posters promoting it: a gorgeous array of colors covering something much more sinister. Midsommar is a chaotic display of raw emotion personified through chilling displays of ritualism and emotional vulnerability. More than anything though, it avoids feeling like a pretentious display of misery by letting the more quiet moments speak just as loud as any image of violence or terror. In a year full of superheroes, realistic animals, and copy-and-paste horror, Midsommar stood out simply by feeling human, with all the highs and lows that come with identifying as such.

Rating: 8/10 

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