Midsommar is a frustrating movie because despite everything it gets right, it remains quite difficult to truly recommend. Rather than resting on his laurels, writer-director Ari Aster has attempted something completely different and arguably far more ambitious than his impressive feature debut, Hereditary. Yet, at a hefty two-and-a-half hours long, it’s hard to escape the feeling he may have stretched himself slightly too far this time.
In the wake of a devastating family tragedy, Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) accepts a last-minute invitation to join her boyfriend, anthropology student Christian, and his three coursemates on an educational trip to Sweden. They arrive at a rural commune to witness once-in-a-lifetime midsummer rituals and are warmly welcomed, but as you can imagine things are not as idyllic as they may initially seem.
Midsommar shines brightest in its first two-thirds, particularly during a stunning first act that sets up the plot with grace and expertise. It’s striking how perfectly naturalistic the dialogue is in these opening scenes, amplified by Pugh’s superb delivery that is dripping with subtlety and pathos. It’s clear from the very beginning that this is to be a showcase for her acting talent and she does not disappoint.
Of course, it also helps that Aster’s focus is aimed solely on his cast in this initial chapter, as it takes place before the group set off over the Atlantic. As such, the character dynamics are front and centre. Dani’s relationship with Christian is seen to be on a knife edge, leaving her a relatively unwelcome presence among his wider friendship circle.
Will Poulter, William Jackson Harper and newcomer Vilhelm Blomgren each give strong performances in this capacity. Their attitude could at times be deemed unsympathetic to Dani’s plight, yet there is justification to be found in their knowledge of how unhealthy the relationship is for both parties. There’s an interesting sense of moral ambiguity but also of pressing realism, the situation seeming to encapsulate the complexity of modern romance.
As the commune nears, Aster’s now-trademark eeriness begins to creep in and his slow building of tension is highly effective. So too is his choice of location, having created an environment that could plausibly pass as both a haven for hippie nature lovers as well as something far more sinister. His slow pans and long takes are a refreshing and methodical change of pace from the standard practice of mainstream horror, with a clear level of care and craftsmanship poured into every shot.
But what begins as a creepy novelty does wear out its welcome as the runtime drags on. The sheer amount of thought that Aster and his team have put into the cult’s various dances and rituals is admirable, but seeing each and every one in painstaking detail ultimately devolves into a chore. This is only exacerbated by the plot’s general lack of direction, indulging in long stretches with very little tangible progression.
Sadly, it is this element that leaves a lasting impression. As Midsommar‘s final act goes on and on and on it begins to feel as if the film itself is some sadistic ritual to test the mettle of moviegoers. All this lengthy pomp and ceremony culminates in an ending that predictably offers little in the way of closure. Aster opts for shock value over substance and while his images are indeed morbidly surreal, you might be too exhausted to really appreciate them.
Midsommar has an embarrassment of riches in terms of performance, production design and direction, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that they are wasted on a thin plot that severely stagnates in its closing act. The film is worthy of respect on account of what it gets right, but the entertainment value of the finished product is questionable at best.