Director Ari Aster is the new poster child for the “sophomore slump.”
The celebrated auteur behind “Hereditary” returns with a film that shatters his potential into a thousand tiny shards. “Midsommar” isn’t just self indulgent and dull. The shocker dares you to sit through a 140-minute bore brimming with body horror and needless nudity.
Even worse, these characters could have been plucked straight from a dumbed-down slasher film. That’s often immaterial for horror, a genre that can rise above such failings.
No such luck here. “Midsommar” is the summer’s biggest letdown.
Young Dani and Christian are on the verge of breaking up when she endures a tragedy beyond standard storytelling tropes. That leaves Christian (Jack Reynor) willing to stand by Dani (Florence Pugh), even though his instincts scream for him to flee.
Instead, he invites her to join his buddies on a trip to an obscure Swedish village. There, they’ll participate in rituals laced with hallucinogenics and impossibly blond strangers.
We soon learn the village harbors secrets, the kind that may spell doom for the main characters. In fine horror movie tradition, they haven’t a clue until it’s too late.
Again, genre cliches shouldn’t be held against a film like “Midsommar,” except the tone and context betray that forgiveness. Aster traffics in smarter tactics, displayed far better in “Hereditary.” He’s not gunning for jump scares and cool kills, to his credit. This is slow build horror, the kind Ti West manages with better results.
It’s shattering to watch Aster’s ambitions collapse throughout “Midsommar.”
It doesn’t help that we barely get to know Dani, Christian or their bland friends (Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter and William Jackson Harper). A subplot involving dueling thesis subjects is a snooze, and so poorly realized it’s rendered pointless.
The Dani/Christian dynamic similarly leaves us cold. She’s grieving, and understandably so. He’s emotionally checked out but feels obligated to see her through her sadness.
We’re left without a reason to care about their future. That makes the film’s third act all more dispiriting.
FAST FACT: Toni Collette nabbed the Gotham Independent Film Award for Best Actress last year for her work in “Hereditary.”
Audiences are asked to wait, and wait, for “Midsommar’s” horror elements to arrive. They finally do, packing a visceral wallop. If only Aster and co. could maintain that intensity, or even come close to its panicky veneer.
Instead, the story labors on, and we’re left with is an oddball cult running through its oddball machinations. There’s nothing cohesive, or scary, about their drills. The curiosity surrounding them wears off early, and we’re left with what feels like hours, and hours more to endure.
Should any horror film be 140 minutes long?
Aster demands that bloated running time, every second of it. He’s like Quentin Tarantino, madly in love with his creative impulses. Only Tarantino has the decency to uncork brilliant dialogue or extreme violence to supercharge our senses.
Nothing of the sort happens in “Midsommar,” unless you consider an extended sex scene that’s alternately silly and soporific.
Thorough it all, Pugh amazes. An early scene finds her calling Christian for an emotional lifeline. The camera screws up to her face, and you can see her alternately hold back tears and struggle to reconnect with him.
It’s a gorgeous acting feat, something horror movies rarely deliver. There’s nothing remotely like it through the rest of the film, and it happens in the first 10 minutes.
The topsy-turvy score is of a piece with “Hereditary” — awkward, discordant and gloriously creepy. It doesn’t last, though. The Haxan Cloak’s handiwork must do more, and more, of the heavy lifting until it becomes yet another maddening element of the film.
What’s “Midsommar” trying to tell us? Does the narrative mock religion, reminding us our rituals would seem bizarre if witnessed for the first time, too? Are we asked to question the family construct, and how even the tightest knit clan can lead to destruction?
Aster deserves credit for stirring those discussions. The film’s finale makes you regret being so gracious.
The last 20 minutes is nothing less than an endurance test. At this point you’re wholly disconnected with the characters. There’s nothing remotely surprising to be shared, either. The Swedish cult that captivated us at first is similarly bereft of interest..
Aster delivers a creepy dance marathon, one meant to leave us thrilled, if not worried what might happen next. You’ll feel … nothing. Emptiness. A hole where a movie is meant to be revving up for the unforgettable finale.
A few “Midsommar” sequences remind you of Aster’s considerable tool kit. The Swedish countryside is gorgeous, yet chilling. His camera swims around the revelers in a way other horror auteurs couldn’t match. You can sense an inquisitive mind at work, a director striving to tell a deeply original story.
He’s done just that. Sadly, it’s the kind you never, ever want to watch again.
HiT or Miss: The director of “Hereditary” returns with “Midsommar,” a horror dud that stops his career momentum … cold.