Thursday, July 4, 2019

MIDSOMMARtime Sadness

Ari Aster is the latest new horror auteur du jour. He’s now written and directed two films of excellent formal control—slowly moving the camera, manipulating soft rustling rumbling half-heard sound, and staging grotesque action to precisely modulate a sort of austere art house unease. He gets the craftspeople working well together at the tops of their games. He populates his films with expertly directed casts of phenomenal thespians howling in anguish when they’re not stupefied or lobotomized by grief. These films have passages that are quite good, but are awfully vacant in the end, having moved on autopilot through standard horror tropes without much else deeper to consider. Sure, they’re slower and more artful than the swifter schlockmeisters would serve up. They summon dread like no one’s business. They ask you to descend with the characters in unsettling situations, but I find myself asking, head down for what?

Take his debut film, Hereditary, for example. It features a galvanic performance from Toni Collette. Playing an anxious, depressed woman in the troubled wake of her difficult mother’s death, she’s so palpably troubled her skin seems to hurt. As the film’s nasty shocks get gnarlier and creepier, she grows vividly agitated, a supremely uncomfortable unraveling all the more unnerving for seeming so real as the supernatural threat around her grows dark and deep. Unfortunately the creeping sense underneath these happenings is not primarily one of sick dread, but of gradual mundane predictability. (A brutal roadside shock early in the picture is the peak of its surprise, as things going bump in the night take on a pedestrian and dull been-there-done-that occultist mishegoss.) It slowly drains the gusto out from under its lead tour de force. One of the most impressive live wire performances in recent memory (my Best Actress in any awards that’d have me as a voter last year) is stranded in a movie giving up its promise minute by minute, sequence by sequence. It's gripping craft chasing down an increasingly unproductive concept.

I was glad to see Aster’s follow-up, Midsommar, is a slight improvement. Although now between the two films we can make a short dreary list of things this writer-director finds scary — cult rituals, heads falling off, family members brutally dying, naked old people — and uses as predictably self-evident, his sophomore effort does slightly more to envelop its characters in their derivative horror plot as it imposes its dark metaphor upon them while pretending it's insightful. It’s a college-students-on-a-camping-trip movie, this time a group of grad students off with a pal to visit his tiny Swedish hometown commune. A spectacular feat of precisely photographed production design, it's a memorable, sinister wide-open clearing with cabins and crops and ominous symbols. Under the intense summer sun, the peculiar rituals of this insular community take on a procedural logic of psychedelic menace, the hallucinogenic tea causing the forest landscape to pulse and warp, the cheery threat of unfamiliar tradition ladling fatal openness on top of garden variety awkwardness. The crux is that the lead (Florence Pugh) is mourning an unspeakably upsetting family tragedy, and her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) is an inconsistent support system. And so maybe these cultists — with their cooperation and hard work and dance competitions, and ritual suicide, and odd breeding habits — have figured out a way to support each other? She’s tempted, but it never quite syncs up in the way the movie expects it to, losing track of her perspective and making a few leaps by the end to force its conclusion for her. Wondering why, exactly, she allows herself to trust these people after her hugely traumatic opening family trouble, and again after initial distressing suspicions, makes the finale so very hollow. But the way there is often transporting, scene after scene of slow, straight-faced setup and baggy horror tropes (Will Poulter’s surly, sarcastic tagalong is terrific comic relief of a sort that could be airlifted into a Friday the 13th) and anthropological interest (the cult’s every ceremony goes on and on). Eventually side characters disappear without satisfying payoffs, violence gets increasingly gnarly, and we’re left with our lead couple’s falling out going up in flames. Ultimately just Hostel for people who prefer some slow-drip art house sheen to the blood and guts, it never quite activates its considerable potential, but the journey there is certainly well-crafted unease with fantastic performances. Aster might have a great film in him yet.

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