*. OK, let’s start with how long it is. The Wicker Man, which I think everyone, including writer-director Aris Aster, would agree was the direct inspiration for Midsommar, was 88 minutes long and had a lot more story to it than this movie, which comes in at 148 minutes. And yes, that means I’ll be talking about the original theatrical release of Midsommar in these notes. The director’s cut, which also got a theatrical release, runs to 171 minutes. No thanks!
*. Is the length a problem? Well there are some issues with it. For one thing, I think everyone going into this movie knows exactly where it’s going. I was surprised when it came out to find so many reviews warning readers with spoiler alerts. What is there to spoil? Is there a twist to the story at any point?
*. A slow pace doesn’t necessarily make a bad fit with a movie so obvious. One could see it as a way of adding to the sense of inevitability. If I’m being honest I didn’t find Midsommar dull, though I did find myself thinking at one point that it would have been better suited as a cable miniseries spread out over several weeks. But while not dull, I did think that at two-and-a-half hours there needed to be more meat on these bones. In addition, if you’re going to make a “slow burn” horror movie there does have to be a bit more bite in the tail than we get here. This movie is a slow burn to an even slower and more drawn-out climax.
*. Aster had thought of making a slasher horror film set among a cult but changed his mind, for personal reasons, and decided to make a break-up movie. I think he should have stuck with his original plan. Unfortunately, he was left with a cast of slasher-film characters without much to do but wander around a spacious location. This is a point I want to stress, for reasons I’ll get into.
*. Because of its sedate pace and lack of jump scares a lot of reviewers tried to make the argument that Midsommar is not in fact a horror movie. Instead it was seen either as a comedy (by the irony crowd), an “adult fairy tale” or break-up film (Aster), or “an intense psychodrama” (Mark Kermode) that’s really all about Dani’s loss of her family and her need to be accepted into a new one by going native. Talk about one-upping the anthropologists.
*. I don’t buy this. Midsommar is a horror movie, firmly rooted in various genre tropes and conventions. There’s The Wicker Man and Two Thousand Maniacs!, as well as the more recent spate of tourist terror (Hostel, Turistas, The Ruins). Not to mention nods along the way to a whole library of horror films, from the opening overhead car shots (yes, I’m still wondering about those) to Simon’s corpse getting the full Hannibal Lecter treatment in the chicken house. That it has a psychological dimension is fine, but that’s something it shares with a lot of horror movies. You could just as easily, and perhaps more fairly, call Psycho an intense psychodrama.
*. The other problem with this argument is that if Midsommar is a break-up movie it’s not a very deep or very interesting one. Aside from Dani, the characters have no more depth than the usual gang of soon-to-be-dead teenagers. And even Dani isn’t fleshed out that much. Meanwhile, if I wanted to watch a break-up movie why would I want all this other stuff layered on top of it? A lot of which is, in the end, less provocative or challenging than when the story was told fifty years ago.
*. Break-ups can, however, be inspirational for filmmakers. There was one behind David Cronenberg’s best movie too. Strong emotions often lead to exceptional artistic statements.
*. I wasn’t a big fan of Hereditary, which I thought overrated when it came out. This movie was a quick turnaround and it shows in recycling a lot of the themes and imagery from that earlier film, from the cult practices, to the nudity, to the appearance of the effigies discovered at the end. There’s also a similar sense of characters just being carried along, literally at times. Drugs play a big role, though I don’t think there’s any kind of anti-drug message being made.
*. There were a few things I liked. Florence Pugh is very good, and almost singlehandedly makes this a movie to recommend. I also liked the absence of gory kills. It’s creepier not always knowing what happens to the various victims. Wondering, for example, whether or not they’re in the meat pies. I think this works very well.
*. Still, it goes on far too long and doesn’t add up to anything new or special in the end. It’s not scary, which doesn’t mean that it’s not a horror movie but only that it’s not a scary horror movie. That may be deliberate to some degree. Aster’s standout visuals, for example, seem to work against the evocation of horror. But this doesn’t mean he’s transcending the genre.
*. Ironically, despite its slow pace it seems to have been a quick production. I already mentioned Aster’s quick turnaround from Hereditary and the feeling I was left with here was that this was an idea that needed some more time to ripen and develop.
*. As it is, it’s a horror movie that awkwardly tries to piggyback with a gender-conversation flick (where male and female audiences might be expected to see different movies, as with Gone Girl or Holiday). That such a combination failed to find much traction at the box office, despite the critical response (which upped the hype from Hereditary), suggests it ended up falling well short of wherever it was going.