Ari Aster is a tease. There’s an allure to his filmmaking style. His shots are long and careful, sometimes lasting full scenes, often utilizing the space of a whole room. He wants your eye to wander, to notice what art is on the wall or what books are on the table. With Midsommar, the camera floats around a scene or straight into the atmosphere, wheeling above the action. You, along with the characters, can’t find your feet. You’re disoriented, but you like it. Aster politely requests your attention, and you offer it to him, along with your patience. He’s trustworthy.
Oh, but then. Somewhere in the second act, you get an itch. Shots become too long and too careful. Lingering on imagery now feels more like a preoccupation than nuance. You want desperately to come down to earth and find your footing, because the experience of watching Midsommar is becoming tedious and uncomfortable. And then you realize, to your disappointment, that that’s probably exactly what Aster was going for.
His characters are too archetypal to exist as people. They’re shells of people, serving as functional cogs in a machine. Some function to generate empathy, others to hate or laugh at. At least one exists only to ask questions because Aster so clearly and desperately wanted to avoid using classical exposition. All his characters go through feelings of tedium and discomfort, along with confusion, repulsion, maybe fear – like you do as you’re watching. You are to inhabit the shells of his characters. His machine is putting you through the paces of the characters so that you feel as the characters feel, and he believes there’s artistry in that.
The implication that an audience’s emotions should be wrenched out than coaxed out is as arrogant as Midsommar is self-indulgent. The Shining’s massive Overlook Hotel feels like a slowly tightening straightjacket. The Babadook twists your nerves until they feel as Amelia’s hair looks. Each and every one of Georgina’s noes in Get Out burrows itself under your skin until it’s crawling. You are claustrophobic, wrecked, unnerved, all because of carefully crafted choices made by the filmmakers guide you to that place. Aster’s choices are empty stunts that feel condescending. There is no value in verisimilitude if the story is the expense.
Detail is Aster’s aesthetic, and it’s his most annoying quality. My movie companion and avid horror fan said of Midsommar, “It’s the horror movie that social media made.” There’s so many visual cues, so much folk art to filter, so many flower crowns to selfie. But they’re also vapid and intentionally misleading. He mistakes minutiae for symbolism, and unless you’ve read the same books on Swedish pagan rituals as he has, most of what he offers is meaningless.
There’s a strong sense that Aster is very pleased with himself and his obtuse creation. Throughout the film, he purposefully withholds explanation to keep you on the hook and then delivers something that answers nothing. When the denouement hits, you half expect to see Aster peeking out from behind the screen, grinning at you, inviting you to interpret all you want, knowing you will never get it because you are not him. One should not have to do follow-up reading in order to understand what happens in a movie.
Midsommar is less than the sum of its parts. It has a handful of effective moments, but it’s full of missed opportunities. Specifically, the film is so very white, but it never approaches what it means for docile whiteness to heel-turn into hostility. It’s not to say that all filmmakers need to speak to our sociopolitical times, but avoiding the topic feels like a glaring omission.
But then, there’s no examination of anything in Midsommar. Aster knows what everything means, but he refuses to tell you. Instead, he places people, scenes, events in front of you and commands you to do something with them. You squint. You scour the shot for a clue. You save the details for later. But there’s no reward in it for you, because Aster isn’t telling a story. He’s playing a guessing game.