REVIEW: Midsommar (2019)



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WARNING: This contains spoilers.

Horror is a genre that rarely gets much, if any, recognition from Hollywood at all – usually most cinema-going people and executives treat the entire genre much like how many treat professional wrestling – a entertainment style that is assumed to be for only uncultured people to watch. Well, that was until recently, when we started seeing yearly Arthouse horror films getting all sorts of buzz from the staunchest Hollywood suit. Films like Jordan Peele’s Us, and Get Out as well as Ari Aster’s Hereditary seemed to prove that horror could be done in a way to almost make it into the award scene. I have enjoyed most of these films despite the relative over-hype in the media, so I was excited to see what was coming next.

I’m not going to lie, I was initially worried, of not annoyed by the original trailer for Midsommar, the newest film by the aforementioned Ari Aster. I even wrote an article based solely on the trailer and everyone’s reaction to it making me nervous. I feel very strongly that Pagans are the low hanging fruit of easy targets to demonize in films, ranked almost as high as Russian mobsters and Satanists.

Examples of this trend are The Wicker Man (Celtic Reconstructionists / possible Neopagans depicted as a human sacrifice cult). Halloween III (Same as The Wicker Man, but worse because it’s on a sacred Celtic festival). The Serpent and The Rainbow (multiple voodoo stereotypes all rolled into one). Pet Semetary (Druidic magic is only good for raising the dead to do your bidding). Drag Me to Hell (Romani people, or pejoratively Gypsies, are willing to feed people to demonic abominations if wronged). And that’s just a few films out of the hundreds like this.

Thankfully, I was wrong about Midsommar.

The film centers around an American couple, Christian and Dani, that seem to be having troubles in their relationship. Dani has just gone through a hash family trauma, and has little help from her boyfriend, who actively is seeking a way to end their relationship mostly due to his college friends trying to tempt him into leading a far more promiscuous lifestyle more to their needs. Hoping to get some relief, the pair decide to take an offer for a vacation in Sweden with their friends, Mark and Josh, hosted by a Swedish transplant named Pelle to a small village that is hosting a festival held once every 90 years. Unbeknownst to them, the festivities are not exactly within their cultural wheelhouse.

I spoke early about my fear of the demonization of the rural Swedish Pagan characters in the film, but they really aren’t the bad guys. If anything, Christian and his friends (especially Mark) are far worse, and most of the movie was spent, for me at least, was waiting for them to get their comeuppance.

We also are not 100% sure what the beliefs of the actual villagers are. Like most folk horror films, Midsommar borrows from here and there, and tries to keep it deliberately vague. We can make assumptions based on the fact that the number nine pops up a lot, and the use of Elder Futhark runes, that these people are the remnants of some sort of Norse Pagan group that somehow escaped Christianization or reverted back at some point. This is never really talked about in the film, as the events really don’t open up room for this sort of dialog. People well versed in the motifs of what we presume to be Viking religion can definitely pick up on “Easter Eggs”.

While I can assume that all of the deaths in the film would have likely happened anyway considering that the brothers Pelle and Ingemar were specifically told to bring back people to be sacrificed, I’m not sure it would have happened the way it did. For example, two characters tried to flee the compound vowing to “call the cops” after witnessing a cultural “rite of passage” wherein everyone that reaches the age of 72 commits ritual suicide. Mark spends the entire film lusting after women and urinates on an ancient tree that is seen to house the souls of all of the village’s ancestors. Josh is seen taking pictures of a sacred text from the group despite being specifically denied doing so. and Finally, Christian spends the entire film basically ignoring his girlfriend, and betrays Josh in order to work on his college thesis about the village despite knowing Josh was going to do so as well. These characters made themselves embody, greed, lust, and evil – all things anyone would abhor.

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The whole film is a study in coming face-to-face with cultural relativism. By judging the village’s actions that are seen as holy and traditional as being evil one could come away with a sense that the village are the villains, but the film handles the ambiguity so much better than films such as The Wicker Man, as it avoids the preachy modern know-it-all character that tells everyone off before getting covered in bees and burned alive ala the aforementioned film. I can’t really say none of the villagers acted in malice, as they did manipulate Dani to such an extreme that she seemingly suffers a psychotic break at the end of the film, but everyone that dies are bad people for various reasons. it’s a tough situation Aster has put the audience in – who’s the bad guy here?

For me, the film has a happy ending. In many ways Dani is the happiest that we know her to be at the end of the film. Her family was all killed in a shocking murder-suicide by her sister months before, so she’s not exactly on a level playing field going into the events. Pelle steps in to be the love interest that she needs, a man that is going out of his way to check on her and make sure she’s okay and can relate to her plight. She is accepted into the group, and allowed to be happy for the first time in her life. In the final thirty minutes of the film, she is crowned the May Queen of the festival and paraded around town like a living goddess – she is given purpose in life for the first time, feels accepted and loved. When she witnesses Christian cheating on her, albeit coerced, she is quick to choose him to be the final sacrifice of the nine to be given to the gods. At the end of the film, as everyone that wronged her is burning inside a wooden pyramid, she smiles. She is home. Her past life is dead.

The juxtaposition of the bright happy setting and the disturbing deaths is very off-putting and far more scary than what happens in many actual horror films. I can see why some horror fans would not like the film as it was presented as a hard horror movie, and its honestly more of a thriller or drama film with a VERY shocking final act. This isn’t too far from how Aster’s previous film, Hereditary, was viewed by many.

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I loved Midsommar despite my previous misgivings about my perceived reaction to the film. It is artistically a beautiful film, a VERY disorienting film, and just shocking enough to have power without being gratuitous like slasher films.

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Attack the Block (2011)

 

As much as I like big budget sci-fi films, there has been a sad trend lately where they all have to cost hundreds of millions of dollars with no substance, and many fall by this fact. In the case of John Carter of Mars, Disney set it up so that it would have to gross over 600 million smackaroos just to break even (!), a fact that makes me mad and reminds me that these Hollywood folks have no idea what they are doing. It’s no wonder that some of the better, more talented directors of our time have had to deal with smaller budgets in foreign markets and as a result have come up with better films.  Recently we had District 9 from South Africa, District B-13 from France (neither are related ..lol), and a new movie (for me) called Attack The Block from Great Britain. These films struck me as far more endearing than a lot of recent big budget Hollywood sci-fi films in that they did not rely on cookie cutter action heroes, and looked a lot “cooler”, more vibrant, and more expensive than their Hollywood brethren.

Since I mentioned atypical heroes, nothing can get less “mainstream” than a gang of juvenile delinquents. And no I don’t mean the whitewashed leather jacket and cigarette smoking kind of delinquent found in many 90’s teen movies trying to be edgy (or the Fonze); we’re talking foul-mouthed criminals that deal drugs and get in fights. In fact, we first find our group of protagonists engaging in a mugging at knife point! In no way does the film try to glamorize this fact, or lessen the fact they these are generally bad people, and this becomes a big plot point in the film. This mugging is broken up by an alien crashing into a nearby car, to which our gang of reckless heroes kicks it’s skull in. what they don’t know is that their arrogant display of faux invincibility has brought repercussions that they couldn’t dream of. In their quest to make a ton of money selling the dead alien, they have unwittingly brought an alien invasion to their council tower block.

This plot set up vaguely reminds me of the initial set up for the immensely popular anime film Akira, in which a biker gang composed of drug dealers ends up saving the world. This always seems to work better for me than your normal action plot in that it has built-in character development. Why waste time coming up with a way to have your chiseled jawed dopey eyed action hero fall from grace, when you can have your heroes literally start out at the bottom of the barrel. Our main character Moses, as played by John Boyega, is struggling to avoid falling into the traps of organized crime within his community. He’s getting increasingly into worse activities like drug dealing via the local self-styled “boss” of the flats Hi-Hatz. He feels bad about trying to mug the aforementioned nurse Sam, and we follow the character as he “grows up” and realizes that there are always effects for the things you do.

Aside from the plot, Attack the Block succeeds in having a good-looking alien menace to contend with. Instead of human-like creatures we have a race of gorilla-wolf monstrosities with no eyes, glowing teeth, and shaggy black hair. The animalistic nature of these creatures coupled with the few gory scenes of people getting ripped out throats makes these guys fairly intimidating. Good thing our rag-tag gang of misfits has a ton of “teenager weapons” like Katanas bought off the internet, illegal fireworks, and super-soakers filled with gasoline.

Last, but not least, we can’t forget the great job in directing that Joe Cornish did. It was amazing to realize that this was actually his first big film, although he did help write the very awesome Tintin movie last year. Nothing is wasted in the direction, and it doesn’t feel padded out at all. The flashy up-tempo style reminds me a bit of other UK directors like Edgar Wright and Guy Ritchie, but not so derivative that it seems like a copy. If Cornish decides to revisit this movie, I would love to see a sequel, as it ends in a sufficient manner to end the narrative, but leaves it open to more alien killing “badassery.”

Bottom Line: this has been on Starz lately here in the U.S., check it out!

Here’s a trailer from Youtube: