Readings & Workings

A Sharp Blow To The Head

L. Rhodes
The following is not a review, but rather a discussion of how plot is related to certain aesthetic effects in the movies Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019). Plot details from both movies are revealed throughout.

Ari Aster is adept at fostering dread. As with most things in cinema, it is a collaborative art. In both Hereditary and Midsommar, the tension is held at high pitch by the looping textures and ambient hums of composers Colin Stetson and Bobby Krlic, respectively, as well as by Pawel Pogorzelski's cinematography, which keeps the focus sharp and the depth of field long. Mostly, though, dread is a matter of patience, for which it helps to be both writer and director. In the first role, Aster spins long, dialogue-heavy scenes that wend their way to details that surprise ("Are we not going to talk about the bear?") but rarely enlighten ("It's a bear"). Midsommar has been discussed as a dark comedy, but by emphasizing the characters' unsuitability to the circumstances closing in around them, that dry humor also creates dread. As director, Aster keeps them in the middle distance more than is fashionable. His cuts tend to be minimal and deliberate. Close-up he reserves for special occasions, like the Dreyer-esque shots that close both films. These choices position us as witnesses, and there are hints throughout, cryptic if not particularly subtle, that the act we are to witness is one of destruction.

Those aesthetic traits link Aster's to that of a handful of his contemporaries, all American auteurs of a certain generation. You could write their history starting with Ti West's House of the Devil (2009), continuing on through The Innkeepers (West, 2011), It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014) and The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015), among others. The style has foreign precedents, most directly, perhaps, in turn-of-the century Asian horror (e.g. Ringu), or further back, to European art house horror (Andrzej Żuławski's Possession). The American scene is distinguished by a self-aware indebtedness to the Anglophone horror cinema of the Sixties and Seventies, so that it is possible to appreciate each movie as the application of the modern aesthetic to some particular influence each writer-director likely first absorbed during the home video boom of the Eighties and early Nineties.[1]

Aster's other strength, qua horror, is a certain brand of viciousness. In that regard, he is closer to a contemporary like Eli Roth. He is particularly fond of head trauma, and where many directors might turn the camera away and let inference do half the work, Aster lingers on the damage, showing the work put in by his special effects team.

And here is where I hesitate. Those two strengths — the patient cultivation of dread and the sudden release of revulsion — are contradictory. One destroys the other. Doing so sometimes serves the broader goals of a work, but the harder that break, the more effort it takes to rebuild a tone like dread. You're not necessarily back at square one, but you're not quite where you left off, either.

The Exorcist serves to illustrate the point, not only because it bears so directly, both in style and subject matter, on Hereditary, but also because we have it in two versions: the 1973 theatrical release, as well as a 2000 cut promoted as "The Version You've Never Seen." Most of the changes from one version to the next are curiosities, doing little to fundamentally change how the original works. Among them, though, is the now-infamous "crab-walk" — a shot of the possessed Regan (Linda Blair), skittering hands and feet down a staircase in full backbend. As a demonstration of the demonic, the clip is effective. Too much so, in fact. William Freidkin has said that he prefers the 2000 cut, but the theatrical release works better overall, precisely because it allows the dread to build uninterrupted until the climax. The crab-walk scene interrupts that previously steady escalation, ultimately blunting the impact of the third act's violent catharsis.

There are no hard and fast rules, of course. Certain more popular varieties of horror — like those in the "Saw" or "Conjuring" franchises, for example — can afford to distribute shocks liberally. Their overall effect depends less on the careful accumulation of dread than on inducing periodic blasts of endorphin. When it retains them at all, dread-based horror typically mutes those shocks, so as not to jar the audience out of the more persistent feeling. Typically, they're pushed outward, like bookends: one good shock in the opening scene, before there's much dread to dissipate, and a final, third act conflagration to discharge the dread built up over the course of the film.[2]

While Aster's films don't exactly eschew the bookend method, nor are the restricted to it. Hereditary establishes a tick-tock pattern between dread and shock; Midsommar confirms that alternation as a hallmark of Aster's approach to horror. The prototypical instance may be Charlie's death in Hereditary, a gruesome and elaborately contrived decapitation that Aster later reinforces with a shot of ants swarming the severed head. I recoiled when I watched it, initially for the visual horror, which seems to have been Aster's intention, but then, perhaps less designedly, for the narrative cruelty, both to Charlie, around whom there is an undefined suggestion of social or cognitive impairment, as well as to older brother Peter, who must absorb the blame. My reaction was in line with what Hitchcock told Truffaut, that the more tension a movie builds around a threat to innocent characters, the greater the risk of losing the audience by delivering on that threat.

If Hereditary hadn't quite lost me, how I related to its story had nevertheless undergone a fundamental alteration, and I stuck with the movie in part to see how it justified that scene. Narratively, it does so by suggesting that Paimon, the movie's as-yet-unrevealed antagonist, has rejected Charlie as a vessel and arranged her death to redirect the coven's attention to the next available candidate, Peter. That worked as a narrative hook, at least — though in other ways the decapitation scene had planted dissatisfactions the movie never fully addressed. I wasn't sure it all added up, but for the moment, I set aside my qualms. After all, wasn't Toni Colette's performance stunning? And didn't that final shot deliver?

Midsommar tends to confirm my qualms about Hereditary. Structurally, the two are veritable twins, albeit fraternal. Where the first movie is shadowy and largely interior, the second cleaves to open spaces suffused with color and light. Yet both are stories of personal invasion by the demonic/divine. Both center on bereaved characters, manipulated by ominous and secretive societies into revisiting their traumas. Their protagonists undergo a prolonged psychic battery, softening up their defenses for betrayals intimate enough to trigger a final breakdown. That dissociation clears the way for a new personality, indicated in each case by a tight, closing shot on their faces.

The process is analogous at the level of genre beats, as well. The ättestupa scene arrives at roughly the same point in Midsommar as Charlie's death does in Hereditary. It creates a similar break in the narrative, upsetting the relationships between characters and thereby isolating them from sources of mutual aid. Even the manner of death is similar: the faces of two female characters rushing disastrously toward immoveable objects — though Aster doubles the gruesomeness in Midsommar by showing the obliteration of the face, redoubles it by bringing in a second human projectile, then doubles down yet again by botching the second suicide, only to pound it into correction. Judged by the standards of horror, that commitment to brutality is impressive. The problem is that of how it relates to the rest of the film.

One of the difficulties posed by The Exorcist's crab-walk scene is that the shock of it demands more reaction than the story is prepared to deliver. The audience may feel that it is time to acknowledge Regan's condition as an acute eschatological crisis, but the characters are immediately back to managing it with hushed voices and medical appointments. The anxious calm that contributed so much to the sense of dread seems less appropriate than before, less sympathetic, less plausible. Midsommar's ättestupa (and, to a lesser extent, Charlie's death in Hereditary) invites similar problems. It bothered me, for example, that Christian and Dani never seemed angry that their friend Josh, who plainly knew the ritual would involve suicide, smugly declined to warn them. Nor does anyone seem sufficiently alarmed when their fellow guests start disappearing, which should probably sound bright, ringing alarms for anyone who has recently witnessed their hosts use a six-foot mallet to pulverize the head of a screaming man. Dani takes a solid afternoon to agonize over what she's seen, then promptly reverts to holiday mode, helping the Hårga women bake and accepting mystery beverages.

Therein lies the fundamental hazard of Aster's alternation between dread and shock. It is not just that the shocks dissipate the dread. Having jolted the audience, each movie recommences the slow work of ratcheting the tension back up to previous levels (without these refractory periods, they'd both clock closer to 90 minutes), but the imagery is so explicit that, for twenty minutes or so, the narratives struggles to absorb the implications. The more they try to accommodate, the more they tend toward disarray, rendering their details less coherent.

Thus, the scene when the Americans first arrive at the Hårga community is briefly interrupted by a cutaway to the deformed face of a person finger-painting in a darkened room. Later on, the figure will be reintroduced as Ruben, but at first we're given only a momentary glimpse, devoid of context or explanation. To what end? The shot has virtually no bearing on the rest of the scene, so why cut to him at that precise moment? The reason, it seems to me, is promissory. Ruben is a non-character, a horror movie trope out of Castle Freak or The Hills Have Eyes. Aster has conjured as a jolt to reassure audiences that there is a messy underside to all this sweetness and light. (Charlie, with her ominous glottal tock, plays a similar role in Hereditary.) Later, one of the Hårga elders will explain that Ruben is the community's oracle, a holy fool produced by a deliberate program of ritual inbreeding. That may carve out a narrative excuse for his presence, but it never rises above justificatory exposition. Ruben's religious status has no discernible bearing on the remaining events — even his paintings must be interpreted into words by the elders — and that initial smear of paint is the closest he plays to an active role in any scene.

In truth, it's difficult to put a finger on how Hårga religion is supposed to work.[3] Its elements are a mishmash of Northern European paganism and New Age spirituality. Incongruous elements appear to have been included for no other reason than to shock. Hence, the blood eagle, a gruesome and possibly fictional form of execution exclusive to viking nobles, makes an appearance. No rationale is given for its practice among the Hårga. Likewise, when Mark is killed, ostensibly for defiling the ancestral tree, his murderer inexplicably shows up wearing his skin and not much else. The most central to the plot is the harvest festival, culminating in the ritual destruction of death and the consummation of new birth, and it seems natural enough to treat that as the organizing principle around which the other elements are arranged. On closer inspection, even that seems uncertain. Ruben notwithstanding, we are told that the Hårga "observe the incest taboo." To replenish their genetic stock, they must recruit outsiders into the community, which is, it turns out, the more pragmatic aspect of their midsommar ritual. Christian is goaded into impregnating Maja, and Dani presumably becomes a permanent part of the community. Two fresh genetic strains is a meager haul for a ritual we're told occurs only once every 90 years. The genealogical math proves difficult to square.

One explanation for all of this is that the Hårga are deliberately misrepresenting themselves to their visitors. Maybe; the film itself remains equivocal on that point. A more promising approach may be to trace the story as allegory. Aster has called Midsommar a breakup film, though I'm not sure he means that quite so literally as some have supposed. It hardly seems like coincidence that the centerpiece of the Hårga sacrifice is named Christian. There are intimations that he represents a critique of modernity — preoccupied with sex, superficially curious about the world, and fundamentally remote from the pain of others: a version of Christian civilization as secular boyfriend. Likewise, visual clues scattered here and there, like a book on the Nazi appropriation of runes, may suggest that Dani's rebound family has a real-world reference point.

In that case, the story could almost depict the psychological process behind the embrace of extreme reactionary politics, much the same way that the neo-Celtic cult of The Wicker Man evoked the stolid Anglican's horror at the resurgence of ecstatic ritual by way of the hippie movement. I think I'd prefer to see it that way, but how does Ruben fit in? Or the deaths of Josh and Mark? The story is strewn with pieces jolted loose by Aster's periodic shock tactics. No matter how I turn them, they never quite seem to fit.

  1. That said, for all its comparisons to The Wicker Man (1973), Midsommar plays more like a movie out of the Italian "cannibal boom" — specifically Cannibal Holocaust, which also sends a quartet of Americans to their death on a foreign journey with anthropological pretensions. The names of the students in Midsommar even have similar names, suggesting deliberate correspondence: thus, Dani/Faye Daniels, Josh/Jack, and Mark/Mark. The clearest exception is Christian, who would presumably correspond to Alan Yates, though I discuss one possible reason for that difference toward the end of the essay.

  2. That is not, of course, the only way to handle dread, and other approaches can result in aesthetic effects that are every bit as affecting. Todd Haynes' Safe, for example, is in many ways an aesthetic precursor, but differs significantly by refusing to end in catharsis.

  3. Some practicing pagans have argued that, by both mischaracterizing and demonizing reconstruction paganism, the movie may contribute to the marginalization of their communities. Others have championed it as a positive depiction of paganism, though given that the Hårga commit 5-7 murders (depending on how you count) during the course of the midsommar festival, I find that position a bit harder to swallow.