Studio: Lionsgate Home Entertainment
Release date: October 8th, 2019
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Say what you want about Ari Aster (and Iím still not sure exactly what Iíd say), but heís directed two films now that have lingered in my brain like few others ever have. Both Hereditary and Midsommar are among the most indelible and divisive films from the past couple of years, so much so that Iíve often been at war with my own thoughts about each one. The latter is an especially jagged piece that Iíve been puzzling over for months. Some movies simply haunt in your brain; Midsommar is the type that rattles around, tugging at the corners of your subconscious in quiet moments, where it demands to be perpetually turned over and dwelled upon. Itís been over four months since it bowed in theaters, and Iím still not sure what to quite make of it. Asterís masterful craftsmanship and his almost effortless ability to create immense, suffocating dread canít be denied; more puzzling is what, exactly, itís in the service ofóif itís in the service of anything at all.
As I left the theater back in July, my gut instinct read Midsommar as a comedy. While itís far from a disposable, throwaway gag, I couldnít help but feel that Aster had mounted this elaborately horrific, 140-minute epic to twist the knife into the backs of bad, toxic boyfriends. Make no mistake: itís a well-told joke, and itís aimed at a much deserved target, but there was something slightly underwhelming about it at first blush. Part of that is probably owed to my own expectations and assumptions: Midsommar just feels like it should be somewhat weightier and mean something beyond that.
Of course, maybe it does. Following its release, Midsommar inspired an interesting discourse, one that produced numerousóand variedóreactions and interpretations. Some found Daniís (Florence Pughís) ordeal at this pagan Swedish festival to be a cathartic journey of spiritual growth, particularly once she recognizes the toxicity of her relationship with Christian (Jack Raynor). Others questioned if Dani perhaps trades one bad relationship with the other since the cult itself is arguably simply exploiting her pain in a different manner. Maybe the smile that spreads across her face becomes darkly, hauntingly ironic when you read it as a smile of gritted resignation rather than exultation. Maybe Aster really sympathizes with Jack himself, here victimized at the hands of Dani and the cult that manipulated her into burning him alive as part of a ritual sacrifice.
Iím not sure any of these are wildly wrong; to be honest, I was initially convinced that Midsommar is a righteous black comedy, wherein this poor girl finds herself at the horrific expense of an idiot boyfriend who doesnít deserve her. This would put it on a similar wavelength as The Witch, another tale involving oppressed femininity finding a twisted sense of liberation in dark forces. (It should be noted that both are directed by men, which means each film may be projecting some kind of wish fulfillment onto its female characters.) And while Iím not completely willing to abandon this reading of the film, I like that so many other interpretations exist to cast a little doubt. If horror should be anything, it should probably be a little unsettling and uncertain, and I canít help but respect a movie that proves to be as slippery as Midsommar.
I love that Aster is willing to leave his audience a little dazed, forcing to decide if what theyíve witnessed was truly bleak or just his idea of a gag. Both Hereditary and Midsommar feel like weighty mediations on grief, trauma, co-dependency, toxic relationships, etc.; however, I canít help but note that both also end on outrageous notes that somewhat undercut their thematic heft. Iíve left both films feeling like Aster is more interested in toying with and amusing his audience more than he is genuinely disturbing them. And thatís okay, especially since thatís a tough sweet spot to hit; grafting schlocky horror onto genuine drama is a bold gambit, and Aster has pulled it off twice now.
Likewise, itís also easy to give yourself over to the pure horror aspects of both. Midsommar is an especially interesting genre work in the way Aster tinkers with conventions and expectations. Few horror films unfold with this kind of aesthetic arc: it begins with a bleak, wintry prelude that dwells on the horrific murder-suicide that comes to haunt Dani. From there, the film literally becomes sunnier with the move to rural Sweden, where the incessant daylight takes on a creeping, supernatural menace. Like a dark inversion of Wizard of Oz (a comparison Aster himself has made by dubbing Midsommar ďWizard of OzĒ for perverts), the film opens with a harsh, drab reality before moving into an otherworldly plane, complete with an opium trip.
Here, though, the trip is a freaky prelude to the horrors lurking in broad daylight. Midsommar is unconventional with its sun-splashed, agoraphobic vision of terror that effectively blends the pagan devilry of The Wicker Man with the grim violence of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It draws from arguably the purest of horrors in exploiting its charactersí alienation: here we have a set of boorish American lemmings being led to a slaughter they donít quite comprehend, even though itís unfolding before their very eyes. Look no further than an ominous tapestry early in the film that basically spells out exactly whatís about to happen to them.
Theirs is a fate thatís been shared by many oblivious, wayward travelers in horror, but, like the best exercises in homage, Midsommar isnít mere pastiche. Despite the obvious influences working on Aster, his film emerges with a fairly singular voice. Determining exactly what that voice is trying to say proves to be somewhat vague. Maybe repeated viewings will bring more clarity; if not, however, Iím fine with making peace with it. After all, shouldnít a film about the horrors of isolation and the unknown leave its audience stranded with some sense of alienation?
Just a few short months after its release in theaters, Midsommar arrives on home video with a serviceable Blu-ray release from Lionsgate. The most pressing issue here is that it doesnít feature Asterís directorís cut, which played in a handful of markets in theaters following the original cutís release. Rumors indicate that itíll be an Apple+ exclusive when it bows on home video, though A24ís own Twitter feed as cryptically debunked that notion. But what we do have here is a nice presentation for the theatrical cut that accurately reflects the filmís uniquelyóand unsettlinglyógorgeous tableau of horrors.
Supplements are a bit light: the 25-minute making-of is a fineóif not succinctóoverview of the filmís journey from conception to production, with cast and crew offering their various insights on the shoot. Itís very much EPK material, albeit with a bit more thought put into it than usual. The only other bonus feature is a bizarre promo for a bear-in-a-cage toy that you can actually purchase from A24ís website, which is slowly becoming a treasure trove of unconventional merchandise (for a largely unconventional set of films, to be fair).
Hopefully, this is just a prelude to a more robust release down the line that also features the directorís cut. Long-time home video enthusiasts are probably having flashbacks to an almost bygone era of double-dipping, when studios would often release bare-bones releases before unleashing more complete, packed discs with more features and/or alternate cuts some months (or even years) later. I thought we were past that point by now, but Iíd gladly purchase a future Midsommar release boasting Asterís preferred cut. Iíll do so seeking some clarity, of course; however, Midsommar is also just the sort of film that you want to get lost in, and I look forward to doing so for years to come.
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