Ari Aster is a filmmaker who made a name for himself last year when he released the horror film, Hereditary (2018). It made a decent amount of money at the box office. It was critically acclaimed and it featured an amazing central performance by Toni Collette. Many people from reputable sites online were even pushing for Collette to be nominated for awards, including the Oscar. It didn’t happen, but it made Aster’s follow-up all the more anticipated.
This film is also being distributed by A24, a movie company that has built a reputation recently with elevated or prestige, horror films. If one is aware and akin to those A24 horror films, then most likely one will probably be hip to this movie’s overall impression. Yet, judging by the reactions of people in my audience, the tone becomes more a comedic tone. Of course, Aster probably intended humor, particularly in certain moments, but unlike Hereditary, there’s nothing scary or much of anything to unnerve the audience on a fundamentally dramatic or emotional level.
If it were a straight one-to-one comparison, then this film doesn’t come close to being as good as Hereditary. For starters, this film is too long. In fact, it’s way too long and its length wouldn’t be an issue if it possessed anything in its narrative that was even half as compelling as the drama and tragedy in Hereditary. Its length wouldn’t be an issue if it possessed characters that were even half as likeable as the persons and protagonist in Hereditary.
Florence Pugh (Fighting with My Family and Lady Macbeth) stars as Dani Ardor, a young girl in college who experiences a huge loss in her family. She eventually goes along with her boyfriend to Sweden because his friends are going. She senses that things aren’t well in her relationship and that maybe she’s too needy. She senses she might be on the verge of breaking up, but she decides to tag along anyway.
Jack Reynor (Sing Street and Transformers: Age of Extinction) co-stars as Christian, the aforementioned boyfriend of Dani. He feels that Dani is too needy or that the issues in her family’s life is too overwhelming. He seems like he’s on the verge of breaking up with her. However, when she experiences that huge loss, he stays with her. It’s never clear if he’s doing so out of pity or if he still genuinely cares for her. Either way things are super awkward between them. He does other things that makes him somewhat unlikable, such as forgetting her birthday or passive aggressively forcing her to do things she doesn’t want like take drugs. It’s weird though because he doesn’t even tell her that he’s going to Sweden. It seems as if he were going to go without her.
Pugh gives a good performance of a young woman dealing with grief. She’s also good in her portrayal of Dani’s neediness as well as her anxiety and trauma. Yet, it’s nowhere near as powerful or as much of a knockout as Collette’s performance. This has nothing to do with Pugh as an actress. It has to do with Aster’s direction and specifically his tone.
When Dani, Christian and his friends arrive in Sweden, much of it becomes about rituals and aesthetics. Dani is deep in the countryside, deep in the forest and surrounded by people all dressed in white. Dani observes these cult-like people perform in a week-long festival that includes protocols where everyone has to wait for long stretches before they can do things like eat. I get that these long stretches are supposed to underscore how cult-like and how indoctrinated or brainwashed these people are, but Aster gets so bogged down with his depiction of these rituals that he loses sight of diving into his main characters, which is something he didn’t neglect to do in Hereditary.
William Jackson Harper (The Good Place and Paterson) also co-stars as Josh, one of Christian’s friends and fellow college students. Josh is working on his thesis, so he’s probably a grad student going for his Master’s degree. The reason he’s going to Sweden is because he wants to write about the week-long festival. None of this matters though because like most African-American characters in horror, Josh is there merely to add to the body count.
There’s this whole sub-plot about Christian’s relationship with Josh and his interest in Josh’s thesis that’s supposed to illuminate something about Christian’s character. I suppose it’s meant to illuminate how wishy-washy he can be or how much of a jerk he can be. Yet, Aster doesn’t devote too much to it to make me fully understand Christian’s character at all.
Will Poulter (The Revenant and The Maze Runner) plays Mark, another of Christian’s friends. He’s the comic relief, as well as another to add to the body count. He’s ultimately unnecessary. His presence along with some of the others is meant to underscore something about American culture, but it seemingly doesn’t matter. Mark is just fodder for which the film doesn’t care.
This could be Aster’s intention. His intention could simply be to provide human fodder for what turns out to be psychotic rituals and traditions. This is probably fine for horror enthusiasts who revel in watching humans be not much more than objects in depictions of death and destruction.
It’s a bit of a letdown because the deaths in Hereditary weren’t as shrugged off as they are here. Every death in Hereditary hit me like a ton of bricks, not simply in an easy, superficial or shocking way but in a deeply felt emotional way. Each death in Hereditary was either a gut punch or heartbreaking. The deaths here didn’t hit me at all, not in any significant way. Again, each death here felt like it was shrugged off. Often times the deaths occurred off screen, which added to the feeling of shrugged off.
Ultimately, this film is supposed to say something about Dani and her relationship to Christian. If you’ve seen other A24 horrors like The Witch (2015), what this movie is saying might be similar on the surface, but on a deeper level is unclear or open to interpretation, if that’s one’s pleasure. It was perhaps too esoteric for me.
Rated R for grisly images, graphic nudity, strong sexual content, drug use and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 27 mins.