Let’s preface this right away: I did not care for Hereditary much.
I know a lot of folks did. I have seen that people really seemed to dig Ari Aster’s debut feature length horror film about Toni Collette acting bonkers and heralded it as their Film of 2018, and that’s absolutely fine. It clearly wasn’t for me, but I see what others could have enjoyed about it. It was beautifully shot with fantastic cinematography and effects and settings that buoyed the atmosphere and created the tone Aster wanted to establish. The acting, too, was unimpeachable, with Alex Wolff and Collette adding weight and emotion to every ounce of the film. Their performances were borderline spectacular.
Bit if I loved the directing and the acting, why did I end up despising the movie so much? It’s plot and screenplay were enormous letdowns, as the story was ultimately an eighth-tier rejected Paranormal Activity sequel about a demon out to conquer the Earth/a neighborhood/some random person and the weird cult dedicated to helping it do so. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy Paranormal Activity, it’s just that I am beyond bored with demons and possession films. They are tediously slow and a trope into themselves at this point. Demon and possession based films since the mid-2000’s are worse than slasher flicks were in the 80’s with their perpetual ubiquity, and I was hoping cinema was moving away from that. Hereditary just put a really pretty hat and some expensive make-up on it, but underneath, it was the same tired, slowly progressing possession story. I appreciated what the film did well, but as someone who generally cares more about story than anything else, I was massively let down.
With 2019’s Midsommar, Aster kept the engaging style of filmmaking, with settings and visual effects and shots that are, by-and-large (but not entirely), gorgeous, moody, and popping, so there’s that. Conversely, he swapped the nuanced and layered acting of Wolff and Collette for a series of actors who either can’t help overacting to the point of taking the viewer out of the movie (the star of the show, Florence Pugh), or just seem direly bored to be there the whole time (charisma vacuum Jack Reynor as Pugh’s love interest, and the lowest-rent Chris Pratt you ever will see), or are just playing a lamer version of a character they have portrayed better elsewhere (William Jackson Harper, stuck in the role of a more nefarious version of his Chidi character from The Good Place). Will Poulter works as Reynor’s best friend, but every other character’s entire direction from Aster seems to have been “Speak with a Swedish accent and smile a lot, I don’t know what else, leave me alone”.
The story, too, is an exchange from the basic and tired demon story of Hereditary to an absolutely nuts fever dream of a tale that will almost unquestionably have you leaving the theater thinking “What the hell did I just see?”. It meanders its way to the finish line at a tiring 147 minutes, and Aster seems to have no care for cleaning up the finished product when he could, instead, just cram in more weird details or plot points that don’t go anywhere.
So those are the surface level thoughts. Are we ready for some light-to-mild SPOILERS? Read on!
Visually, the movie is gripping you by the collar and begging you to compare it to either version of The Wicker Man, what with its weird cult of antagonists and their paganistic rituals. Given that the film sees a character dressed up in a bear “costume” and the climax sees [many of] the protagonists burned alive as part of a ceremony to further the commune’s success, there is absolutely nothing here to dispel those comparisons. At one point, I turned to my wife and said, “In 2019, there’s no way the plot of this movie is that foreign people are weird and dangerous, and festivities we don’t understand are not to be trusted, so what’s REALLY going on here?”, but… nope! That’s literally it! No depth; no tact or nuance. The strange non-Americans are murderous barbarians whose culture is backwards and brutal. No twist; it’s always exactly what you’d expect at surface level.
The characters in this movie make mind-numbingly awful choices once they get to the Swedish commune home of their friend, Pelle, and I’m reminded of how annoyed I was during The Strangers when a switch was flipped midway through that movie, and you can tell the screenwriters decided their protagonists had to actively become fools to keep the plot going. After witnessing the cult force two of its elders to commit [needlessly brutal and gory] suicide, the heroes of the picture are bothered by it, but barely moreso than if the cult was just branding folks. Dani–the central character who loses her entire family to a murder-suicide to start the film and is allegedly suffering from PTSD–has a cry over it, but then pretty much immediately moves on with her life. There are two secondary characters named Simon and Connie who are also brought to the village as “guests” who have a much more visceral and realistic reaction to the event, and it instantly made me wish they were our stars instead. Christian (Dani’s boyfriend) and Josh (Fake Chidi) use the ceremony as a jumping-off point to have a pointless go-nowhere argument over which one should get to use the commune as the basis of his thesis. Who reacts to witnessing a bloody double suicide that way? Well… maybe Christian’s character since Reynor spends the entire movie playing him like he just woke up. Speaking of whom, Christian’s drink is visibly different from every single other character’s at a meal during one of the days of celebration, but no one bothers pointing it out or reacting to it in anyway. Why are these people so incompetent and not worth caring about?
The movie is also funny, but in a way where you can’t tell if it is supposed to be or not. There are moments where, as a viewer, I couldn’t tell if the movie was trying to make me think “Wow, that’s weird and uncomfortable” or make me laugh out loud in the theater, but it got the latter. Most notably during an extremely bizarre drug-induced sex scene in the third act. Poulter’s character is there for an occasional joke, but the rest of the laughs… I’m just not sure if they were supposed to be there or not.
There are chunks of the movie that ultimately go nowhere. Remember earlier when I mentioned Dani having lost her family? That makes up a bulk of the opening twenty minutes of the movie, and is horrific. There is historical family drama (given to the audience through SEVERAL bland exposition dumps) resulting in the murder-suicide that is left open to leave the viewer wondering about Dani’s character. It also is completely irrelevant to the movie. You could scrub the film of anything more than a passing reference to Dani having lost a family member in any kind of mundane accident, and absolutely nothing changes. It ends up being a lot of wasted energy for no pay-off whatsoever, but that happens all over this script. Why is the bear skin important? Movie ain’t gonna tell you. What comes of Dani focusing on an elder slipping a pair of scissors under the pillow of a baby at night? Literally nothing. What about the extremely inbred, deformed oracle of the commune; is he important? No, he is not. Boy, all the characters simultaneously hear another scream in the distance at one point, and you would think someone would react or move that plot line forward, but it doesn’t happen. Aster is more concerned with throwing a bunch of weird and dramatic scenes at a wall than he is about developing points whether or not they have stuck. You start thinking that the movie may well end up having been a bad trip from some acid the traveler’s take early on because it would end up being the only thing that fits the nonsense of it all.
Ultimately, Midsommar is the story of Dani’s journey from an orphaned trauma survivor who is a doormat to her boyfriend (who the movie tries to portray as uncaring and distant, but also undoes that by showing him sticking with her through her troubles and constantly defending her to his friends) to someone who accepts the sense of community of the cult and burns her boyfriend alive. It’s… a weird message. Christian isn’t a great partner because he forgets birthdays and anniversaries, is more concerned with his thesis than Dani’s problems, and turns his bad behavior around on her until SHE apologizes for it, but he’s not abusive or a villain. And for Dani to grow past him, all she has to do is… accept the creepy, murderous machinations of a cult? Is the takeaway here that leaving an unhealthy relationship and accepting female empowerment makes you a terrible person? Is it that cults are okay if they help you literally kill the mild nuisances of your life? If the movie is somehow not trying to have a poignant point with its ending, all you are left with is “everyone here sucks”, and that’s a shitty move. What am I supposed to be taking away here?
I will say I probably ENJOYED this flick more than Hereditary. It’s objectively worse (if only because the acting quality fell harder than the elders that dove off a cliff to kill themselves), but I also genuinely laughed at some points and enjoyed spending a chunk of the movie trying to decipher what was actually going on. I’m never ever going to give either a second watch, so on one viewing each, I will say Midsommar was better on a pure spectacle basis. But ultimately, I feel done with Ari Aster movies. They are the definition of all style and no substance. They look beautiful, sure, but there’s just nothing in the writing worth sticking around for.