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‘Midsommar’ establishes Ari Aster as master of genre-bending horror

If Ari Aster’s debut film “Hereditary” indicated his knack for producing heart-wrenching dramas through the lens of classic horror cinema, “Midsommar” makes him an auteur of his own genre. 

Released July 2, “Midsommar” is as promising as fans of “Hereditary” would expect it to be. It’s genre bending, gruesome and looks deep into the impact of trauma on relationships, which further begs the question if Aster has marked a new era of horror films. 

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“Midsommar” narrates the faltering relationship between a deeply traumatized Dani (played by Florence Pugh) and her passive boyfriend, Christian (played by Jack Reynor). After Dani experiences a loss in her family, Christian reluctantly invites her to join a few of his college peers to a retreat in an isolated community in Sweden for their midsummer festival. As the community reveals itself as much more twisted than the tourists expected, Dani is confronted with her partner’s faults and reflects on her relationship of four years. 

What was successful with “Hereditary,” and what similarly works in “Midsommar,” is Aster’s ability to make a horror film in which the horror itself comes secondary to the focus on relationships between individuals. In the formerly mentioned, the narrative of family loss and crumbling dynamics is merely complemented by the narrative of cult rituals and demons. In “Midsommar,” the trauma from losing loved ones combined with Dani’s connection to an emotionally distant partner is what drives the plot. 

“Midsommar” is now playing at The Lyric

What isn’t clear to Dani at the start of the film is already clear to the audience: her boyfriend is trash. Christian consistently dismisses her anxieties, avoids communication, fails to invest in her emotional healing and chooses his selfish interests over his long term relationship. Still, Dani’s dependence on Christian reveals an even more troubling truth. The healing process is an inexplicably long and lonely one, and for some, going it alone is worse than trying to rely on someone who isn’t reliable. 

The deliberate shots in “Midsommar” also lend themselves to the storyline in a way that is both meaningful and unsettling. Throughout the film, Dani expresses concerns about the traditions of the cult, and revealing close-ups of her reactions to her boyfriend’s dismissals work to unveil her inner turmoil. Dani’s frequent emotional breakdowns at the beginning of the film are events she endures alone, but when zooming shots of her gripping her mouth and holding back screams are juxtaposed with later close-ups of her scream-crying into the arms of the other cult members, it reveals a significant shift in the storyline. Of course, an Aster film wouldn’t be complete without its gruesome imagery either, which is in full effect during the lingering shots of bashed-in heads and mutilated bodies. Because these don’t mimic the usual gimmicky jump-scare moments we’re used to seeing in horror movies, the audience is forced to sit with the tension that continues to build throughout the two-hour film, waiting for an exceptional payoff that may or may not be delivered. 

While the cinematography, score and storyline are unique in many ways, “Midsommar” still has its place in Aster’s overall body of work. There are some distinct similarities, like the disorienting upside-down camera pan and the still shot of a mutilated body part that lasts a few seconds too long, but the most promising of all is its success as a psychological thriller, drama and horror film altogether. Whether Aster will stick with this genre-bending beat or move forward onto other projects, “Midsommar” proves he has refined a new horror canon that is even more effective in terrifying audiences.

Elena Waldman can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @WaldmanElena. 

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