Monday, October 14, 2019

MIDSOMMAR (2019) Blu-ray Review



Scare-A-Thon Totals to Date:

Total Movies Watched: 12
Total First Time Views: 4
Amount raised for AMAZON WATCH: $913.80

Midsommar (2019) d. Ari Aster (USA) (147 min) (1st viewing)

In the wake of a horrifying family tragedy, graduate student Dani (Florence Pugh) decides to follow her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his pals Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), and Pelle (Villhelm Blomgren) to the latter’s hometown commune in Sweden, known as the Harga, for a elaborate midsommar festival that takes place every 90 years. The immersive celebration, steeped in centuries-old traditions, will ultimately affect each of the outsiders differently and disrupt their tenuous relationships forever.


The above description is both succinct and wildly inadequate for the visual, aural, and emotional feast that Hereditary writer/director Aster has in store for audiences with this, his second feature. There is so much on the plate and on the palette that it’s difficult to know where to begin to dissect this rich and rewarding enterprise, which is why it’s doubly puzzling to find oneself feeling disappointed by what ends up being a very straightforward and often predictable reworking of the 1973 classic The Wicker Man.


Aster must have known from the outset that comparisons would be made between Robin Hardy’s pagan cult horror masterpiece and, to his credit, he has gone to great pains to distinguish his film from its predecessor. Whereas The Wicker Man felt as though the viewer had traveled to a distant but recognizable land where strange customs held sway over the small community, Midsommar is simply transportative – we have never seen anything like this before and yet its foreignness never feels artificial or contrived. Aster and his collaborators have toiled tirelessly to create a fully realized environment that envelopes us as completely as it does the collegiate outsiders. This commitment to realism is Midsommar’s greatest attribute, and there are not enough superlatives to shower upon the production team of cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, art director Csaba Lodi, costume designer Andrea Flesch, and composers The Haxan Cloak.


So, what’s the problem?


Much like Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria, the protagonists at the center of Midsommar are passive spectators in their own destruction, robbing the film of any sense of dramatic urgency. Unlike The Wicker Man, which had a police investigation of a missing child driving its plot inexorably forward, our identifying characters simply stand around and marvel at the strangeness of it all, even when it becomes clear that there is something potentially sinister going on. The only two characters that voice any concern or moral outrage are a young British couple Connie (Ellora Torchia) and Simon (Archie Madekwe), similarly invited to observe the festival, and they and their fears are given so little heed and so effortlessly silenced that one wonders why Aster even bothered to raise them in the first place. Everyone else simply seems dazzled by the eye-popping spectacle before them; even if they do feel slightly uncomfortable by what they observe, they shrug it off and chalk it up to “unfamiliar custom” and/or not wanting to be rude.


Again, it’s worth repeating that there is so much to appreciate in the presentation of this world that one can almost go along with the flow for the extensive 2.5 hour running time (apparently Aster’s director’s cut exceeds three hours). The hand-stitched, deceptively simple yet elaborately designed costumes, the parade of glittering sun-kissed tableaus, the ornate artwork covering nearly every inch of open space, the immense thought given to every gesture, every vocal inflection, and the sense of everyone in the Harga community being a small working piece in a greater whole. As an exercise in world-building, it’s breathtaking. Yet, as a dramatic narrative, it falls a bit short.


In addition to the hypnotic inevitability bogging things down, Aster’s characters are not particularly well-drawn and the relationships are extremely thin. Like Toni Collette’s devastated mother in Hereditary, Pugh portrays a woman ravaged by grief and pain, leaving her vulnerable to the machinations of outside forces. It is an electrifying high-wire performance, with the young British actress flickering throughout the spectrum of discomfort and pain before our eyes – it’s no mystery why the promotional artwork features her tear-streaked face in close-up, as it is the film’s greatest special effect. However, unlike Collette’s Annie, Dani is a portrait of shattered inaction – she simply floats along as her allies abandon and/or fail her, letting her course be guided by others. While it’s completely understandable given her plight, it doesn’t provide much in the way of dramatic tension.


Similarly, her one-foot-out-the-door boyfriend Christian is another example of infuriating passivity – we learn in the opening sequence that he’s ready to end this three-year relationship, but feels obligated to stick it out when Dani’s life implodes. But his lack of investment is felt and echoed by the by the audience; how can we care about these two when we know there is no THERE there? As we watch the young couple slowly being undone in this faraway village, there is no sense of loss because they were undone from the outset. If anything, it’s just another opportunity to exhibit Dani’s role as Life’s emotional punching bag.


Harper is compelling as Josh, the resident enthusiast for pagan European and Scandinavian rituals, but he’s relegated to providing the occasional bit of exposition and when Christian reveals that he is also going to do his thesis on the Harga, it feels a bit manufactured, designed to create mini-drama so that Harper has something to do. By contrast, Poulter is simply there to be the ridiculous Ugly American, vaping away and commenting on how hot all the Swedish chicks are. Blomgren’s sweet and beguiling demeanor as the welcoming host for his friends is charming at first, but as these end up being the only notes his character plays, it – again – proves unsatisfying.


All of which leads to the film’s biggest challenge: By unreservedly committing to NOT delivering a Wicker Man retread, Aster consistently, doggedly downplays or subverts the traditional horror tropes. We do not have the hero or heroine struggling to escape the village or being chased by the locals through the woods or even having the elders quietly and/or malevolently explain their motives. This is all to the good, because we have seen all that before, and it’s refreshing to witness an artist pushing against the norm. However, it’s not enough to simply dodge the conventions; one must replace them with something equally compelling and this is where Midsommar leaves me wanting.


As in Hereditary, there are several shocking moments of flinch-worthy physical violence and gore (and one notable plot twist toward the end), but the steadily mounting sense of dread and suspense are somehow muted this time around. Not to say they are completely absent, because there is rarely a relaxed moment and something is always happening to move the narrative forward, but it never achieves the butt-clenching fear and terror generated in Aster’s first outing (itself a reworking of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and other genre classics). There is a sense of poetic fate throughout, and I suspect that I will appreciate it further on subsequent viewings, but as with Suspiria 2018, there is often a sense of wanting so badly to be appreciated as a Serious Horror Offering that it forgets to actually frighten us in the process.


Ultimately, I ended up admiring Midsommar more than enjoying it, but there’s no denying that Aster is an artist to watch, one whose journey has only begun.

BONUS FEATURES:

Let the Festivities Begin: Manifesting Midsommar (25 min)

"Bear in a Cage" Promo (1 min, and very funny)


Midsommar is available now on Blu-ray and DVD from Lionsgate and can be ordered via most retail platforms.




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