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Are Ari Aster’s films, Hereditary and Midsommar, really worth the hype?

Are Ari Aster's films, Hereditary and Midsommar, really worth the hype?

Before I talk about all the reasons why Ari Aster’s films (2017’s Hereditary and Midsommar a couple of years later) don’t quite do it for me, let me explain why I liked one particular aspect in Hereditary, Aster’s first full-length feature. In this movie, we follow miniaturist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) and her family — husband Steve (Gabriel Byre) and teenaged son Peter (Alex Wolff) — in the aftermath of a road accident that killed little Charlie (Milly Shapiro), Annie’s younger daughter.

I really, really enjoyed the fact that Annie is a miniature artist and how that’s connected to the movie’s overarching themes. The miniatures used in the movie are eerie enough by themselves, but their symbolic value is even greater — much like the audience views Annie and her family through the camera, she in turn watches the miniature ‘family’ in their little house. It’s also a premonition of the fact that somebody is watching them go about their lives; to this hitherto undiscovered entity, the Grahams are just small playthings, like the miniatures are to Annie.

Sadly, Aster’s cinema — and I include both Hereditary and Midsommar in this assessment — isn’t particularly interested in fleshed-out character ideas like the miniatures. Aster is a strong visual storyteller, perhaps one of the strongest in the contemporary era. He knows just how to prolong a shot in order to push a scene from being mildly off-kilter to downright frightening territory. He knows how to exploit the tension between the familiar and the Other, how to extract the maximum mileage out of the striking tableaux his movies feature (Midsommar, in particular, leans heavily on its excellent production design and cinematography).

But this superpower, if you will, comes at a cost: Aster’s characters are really more like stereotypes (the grieving mother, the traumatized waif and so on) and the audience is seldom privy to their motivations, what drives them to take the frankly staggering risks they end up taking. Take Midsommar: the film is based around a Scandinavian cult and their midsummer rituals, specifically their warped ideas around death and regeneration. Every member of the cult/commune jumps off a designated cliff when they turn 72, for example. There are other rituals depicted in the film, including some where the commune members resemble animals, visually speaking.

Even after watching all of this, the four young people who have gathered to observe the cult/commune—Dani (Florence Pugh), her boyfriend Christian (Jack Treynor) and the two academics Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper) never once think about making a run for it, escaping the madhouse (Dani has, like, half a thought in this direction but is swayed immediately by a story told to her, one that’s as cloying as it is transparently dishonest). No, they seem to be more and more attracted to the cult—it’s just that Aster never really tells us why. Hell, even after Mark goes missing and it’s obvious that some harm has befallen him, Josh is still determined to go sneaking around at night, trying to photograph their runes on the sly. It makes no sense whatsoever. This is not suspension of disbelief so much as surrendering to a Bizarro world where humans are simultaneously super-smart and unerringly foolish when convenient.

We are supposed to go with the flow, as it were. We are supposed to lean into Aster’s elaborate metaphor about the foolhardiness of rich Americans, as they stumble headfirst into worlds they don’t really understand but are nevertheless determined to dissect for the rest of the world. It’s American exceptionalism and American inscrutability that Aster wants to hammer home, but in doing so the narrative costs imposed upon Midsommar are considerable.

And besides, Aster’s visual wizardry isn’t the only thing that has made him a critical darling (both Midsommar and Hereditary score above 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, indicating overwhelming approval). It’s also the fact that his movies were very well-timed. Here’s a director whose films, both of them, have featured trauma in the family, and a rapid descent into cult behavior: for obvious reasons, Trump-era American audiences have found parallels between Aster’s unthinking heroines (Toni Collette in Hereditary and Florence Pugh in Midsommar) and their countrymen’s shocking embrace of MAGA ethos.

But even when viewed through that lens, I feel Aster’s movies, specifically the screenplays, come up short. The streaming era’s overflowing bounty has given us several shows that capture the pace and the madness of the Trump cult much better than Aster. Off the top of my head, Kirsten Dunst’s Showtime series On Becoming a God in Central Florida is one of them. Hulu’s The Path, starring Hugh Dancy and Aaron Paul, is another. In very different ways, both of these shows are better horror stories than Midsommar and they do a much more effective job of breaking down cult behavior and mass indoctrination.

Aster’s next, Disappointment Boulevard, has an intriguing premise and a very promising cast led by Joaquin Phoenix. One hopes that this time around, the director backs up his technical virtuosity with a more thought-out story and better characterization.

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