Like milk, everything has an expiration date. I’m not sure which one started the rotting process – The Endless, Hereditary, Wild Wild Country, Us, Apostle – but, the cult-themed movie is starting to smell. Even Tarantino has Charles Manson ready to open on July 26, but I think he might be a subplot and can stay in the fridge a bit longer.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good cult-themed movie every now and then: The groundbreaker was Rosemary’s Baby (1968), anything P.T. Anderson is brilliant, and The Wicker Man (1973, not LaBute’s slipshod version) is the most masterful cult-theme of all, and some might even call it a musical!
These films cover from head to toe the skewed rationality and enigmatic existence of a cult. They provide otherworldly sensations, nearly brainwashing the audience to join and sing along.
Lately, the cult theme has been used merely as a gimmick, or a copout. “What’s that weird stuff going on behind that door that’s causing weird stuff to happen to my loved one?” Oh, it’s a cult. “What can I use as an excuse to display naked women covered in animal blood while they wail to wooden crosses?” A cult is always good for that.
Aforementioned Hereditary started off so well, invoking impending doom and stirring empathy for its tormented characters. Why it had to turn the paranormal and psychotic into a cheap, cultish scapegoat, I will never know. Us pretty much did the same thing a year later.
Now we have Midsommar, and it’s ironically directed by the same guy who did Hereditary, and guess what it’s about?
Now, to its credit, Midsommar does provide some slickly designed moments of fear: The lush, Swedish grassland setting is just as mesmerizing as it is claustrophobic; the mushroom hallucinations are anti post-modern, realistically demonstrating what a bad trip is all about (if only this movie came out before Denver approved decriminalization of mushrooms); and, the prologue assembles such a dreadful scenario for an ignorant, codependent relationship, you’d think you were watching a breakup movie from hell. (Apparently, writer and director Ari Aster actually did break up with his girlfriend prior to making this gem, and I hope he feels better now.)
There’s no doubt Aster has an eye for dread, and I mean that as a compliment. He initiates a foreboding tension through abrupt shot transitions, a moving camera that actually goes behind the doors with all the weird stuff going on, and a grueling buildup that occurs right before the movie’s first big shocker thud.
I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say it’s too bad things take a ruinous turn during the infamous 72nd birthday scene for a lucky couple. It is here that the American characters lose all brain function and any semblance of human dignity (Aster must think very poorly of Americans). No matter how much I want to suspend disbelief and go with Aster’s vision, I cannot believe for one instant that a human being – even with the lowest of ethical, moral, or instinctual value – would not get the hell out of there right then and there. (Maybe the movie should be renamed, My Thesis on Swedish Cults or My Life.)
But, the idiot Americans stay, and we’re treated to a good ole Swedish torture fest and another Ari Aster movie with a promising first half and a bloody dull second half. It’s too bad. What was an engaging focus on human trauma becomes a play pin for cultism for the sake of cultism and a lot of Clive Barker-esque flesh obsession.
Is Midsommar entertaining? That adjective cannot even be associated with this movie. Is it horrifying? A bit. Is it intriguing? Yes, I felt like Larry David and John McEnroe in “The Freak Book” episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm – you can’t look away! Is it long? Unfortunately and brutally, yes. The editing room could have easily cut 30 minutes. Is this a perfect example of a 2 ½ star movie? Absolutely, and Terry Gilliam would disagree (How I Rate the Movies).
Midsommar is my new Deliverance: Like the backwoods of Georgia, I will not be visiting the grasslands of Sweden anytime soon.
**1/2 out of *****