Ari Aster: Already A Legend with Only Two Films

I was first introduced to the Sophomore director, Ari Aster, with Hereditary a few years back in 2018. I have definitely stepped up my horror game in the past few years, which is for a variety of reasons. Mostly as a result of Sam and myself being incredibly into psychological thrillers, which led into a full-blown obsession over the horror genre. And, I genuinely like being scared. If a movie can make you feel actual shock, I feel like it has done its job properly. If it can make you experience fear, it has exceeded expectations. If you genuinely feel the horror unfolding in front of you connects with you on an emotional and physical level, you have something special. And honestly, I am not ashamed to say Ari’s first two screenplays, although very different from one another, exist in the latter category of film. I am speaking about Hereditary and Midsommar.

You undoubtably get a lot of duds with the horror genre, which is unfortunate, but to be expected. It is generally quite easy to produce, and the audience they are marketing to for the films is generally not what you would call a sophisticated palate. That’s not to say that some of the greatest filmmakers and masters of cinema do not absolutely love horror, because they do. What I mean is the intended audience is easier to cater to. You can omit a few plot points to save time and costs, write in characters and take them away without much thought, neglect a backstory here and there – because most of the time people aren’t paying that much attention. The difference with Ari’s films, and many other great horror directors (Gore Verbinski, Hitchcock, John Carpenter, etc.), is that these are for a sophisticated palate. The kind of films that make you question reality, and your own sanity in one way or another. The kind that fills you with a lingering anxiety throughout and often afterwords, and genuinely brings you into the environment of the film’s characters with clever pacing, cinematography, lighting and sound design. There are so many ways the greats make it work, but I’d like to focus on what Ari does that makes his first two films so excellent.

Let’s start with Hereditary, a true masterpiece of horror. The movie, if you have not seen it, follows the lives of a troubled family, recently mourning the loss of their grandmother and trying to pick up the pieces. What starts as sadness evolves slowly into the family uncovering some incredibly disturbing revelations about their grandmother, and the movie pivots to full-blown horror. About a quarter of the way through the movie, and incredibly jarring and intense event takes place that jerks you out of the slow-burn introduction and into complete shock. This scene in particular was one of the most intense and graphic scenes I have ever witnessed. I legitimately had NO idea this was coming and it stunned me and I think everyone in the theater at the time. It was at this moment I realized this was not your typical film. From this moment onward, you are thrust into the intensity of this film full-on. You experience the grief and sadness of Toni Coilette (the mother) so palpably that it actually is confusing at times. The son, Peter (Alex Wolff), is an excellent character fold to his mother, embodying a true feeling of dread and fear in every scene. When events start unfolding that genuinely begin affecting their ways of life, you see these two characters begin to show their true colors in the best way possible.

What sets this movie apart, though, is how it uses the horror genre in new ways. It is entirely unique in its slow-burn approach to scare tactics that you never really realize what is coming next – and that in itself is thrilling and terrifying. While at first you are experiencing visual horror and sadness for these characters, you eventually find yourself being genuinely terrified yourself. The natural becomes supernatural, and when the nefarious entities find their way into the screenplay, you’re in for quite a treat. The film does an exceptional job of putting you in the drivers seat with the family – completely unaware of what exactly is happening, learning more frightening facts in every scene, and genuinely unsure what is going to happen next. These are the characteristics of a fantastic horror film. Not only this, but you are completely petrified in the last quarter of the film, as events start to take place that are equally as frightening as they are anxiety-producing. Like the main characters, you are trapped in this “doll house” with the family, being managed by some evil entity that seems closer and closer with every passing scene. The less you feel like you can wrap your head around what is going to happen next, the better the film in my opinion. Hereditary does just that.

Ari does and excellent job capturing the cult-y vibe in this film, and without giving too much away, it really brought it all home for me. The score is brooding, sharp and genuinely horrifying at times, changing the emotion of specific scenes into ones of pure terror. Music is not used often, but when it is it is incredibly effective. Darkness and light are also used incredibly effectively, with the former beginning to outweigh the ladder throughout the film’s course. The acting was superb, casting choices spot on, and direction top-class. The cross-cutting between mother and son’s experiences is incredibly effective. The writing/dialogue was realistic and emotionally charged – making you connect to these troubled characters in ways you don’t think is possible at the beginning of the movie. You feel the emotions of these characters, and you experience true fear with them, a helpless observer for a helpless family. The environment Aster creates with his fresh approach to the genre is incredibly engaging, even at slow moments, which is incredibly refreshing – one of the most important pieces of a good horror film is pacing, in my opinion (as in, when to slow things down and speed them up, and how to keep people engaged and actually afraid). This movie succeeds on all fronts. 10/10

The second of Ari’s films is Midsommar, and where do I even begin with this one… This movie is not so much horror as it is a mix between a psychological thriller, cult film, drama, horror and mystery – all wrapped into one masterful package. The plot follows a young woman (new actress on the scene – Florence Pugh) who has recently lost her entire family in a murder-suicide orchestrated by her suicidal younger sister. She is invited to come along with her boyfriend and his friends to a once-in-88-year mid summer event occurring in the Swedish hometown of one of the friends, Pele. The friend group is thrust into the small village and becomes intertwined in its events and small societal norms much more than they ever expected. What starts as an innocent trip to experience a simple culture turns into complete madness and thrills in ways I never imagined possible. I will explain why.

Ari once again finds a way to beautifully capture an emotion, dread, in the best way possible in this film. The dread is so tangible at times that it will have you leaning back in your seat waiting for the next shoe to drop – and this persists through virtually the ENTIRE movie. It is exceptional. But with this, you have a cast of relatively unknown characters that bring you excitement, humor, fear and confusion all in one motley group of pals – it’s a welcome change of pace from the typical no-name group of characters we find in many horror-esque films. You genuinely feel like you know these guys well, and you empathize with them. Everyone except for Christian, maybe.

Midsommar is unlike any other movie I have ever seen. When I saw this in the theater on half-priced Tuesday at the Nickelodeon in Portland, I was expecting something special, but what I got was something much, much more. I had seen Hereditary and was so excited to jump in, but I did something I have really been enjoying lately: I did zero research on the film beforehand. I was going in blind. Blind is the best way to see this film. It’s like coming out of Plato’s cave and seeing reality for the first time, except reality in this case is slightly terrifying and certainly disturbing. But at the same time, Midsommar is enlightening in ways I didn’t think it would be. I think what I loved most about this was feeling so “into it” for the entire runtime (which is actually quite long). I couldn’t look away, even for a moment. I was so engrossed in the setting and characters, particularly Pugh and her reactions to everything happening within and around her. There is a particular scene, the last scene of the film, where Pugh makes an expression that truly blew my mind. I won’t spoil it for you, but it is an incredibly satisfying conclusion to this film.

This film is not a psychological thriller – but rather a psychedelic thriller. It brings in elements of hallucinogens early, and the “trip” persists throughout the movie. It is in fact a core element, which I found incredibly cool. Aster has clearly been influenced by psychedelics here – the way he is able to capture the “tripping” of the characters – their reactions to others, the way they see trees and grass moving, and the general anxiety and confusion of it all. The movie in itself is really just a really long trip in that you are both in awe of its raw power and subtly anxious the entire time, if that makes any sense. I was very impressed by this ability to capture the psychedelic effects on people’s psyches, seeing and actions.

Ari does an incredible job from a cinematography standpoint, here. He creates this magical-looking village, set in the rolling hills of Sweden. An incredibly unnerving element to this film is it is a sharp contrast from the darkness of Hereditary – it takes place ENTIRELY during the daytime! There is virtually never a scene of darkness. All of these unnerving and strange events are unfolding in complete clear view. Which is ironic, because you really have absolutely NO clarity to what is going on in the background. Like in Hereditary, you are with the characters getting swept up, in many cases literally, in the Midsommar event. The characters are never once in control, although it may feel like it at first. As soon as they set foot in the main setting – the Village is in control. Every event feels deliberate, calculated, and staged by the townsfolk – and it is incredibly creepy. It creates an uneasiness that had me gritting my teeth through the whole film. It is brilliantly done.

The movie explores regret, angst, and power struggles in relationships between friends, family, and couples in a way that never takes away from the films core. It never feels cliche, but rather you observe it happening around the edges of the film. It never distracts, only adds to its quality. By using several, more youthful actors, they embody the late-20s, enthusiastic, intelligent grad students in a perfect way because you are never distracted by an actors past performances. I had no idea how they were going to perform or what their tendencies were, and this was a welcome experience. It made everything all the more intriguing. William Harper was excellent as Josh, the intense and calculated student seeking knowledge, while the ever-funny Will Poulter was welcome comedic relief. Florence is the star, though. She conveys emotion in such a real and etherial way that you genuinely can connect with her despite the unimaginable tragedy in her life, because you too are reacting with her to the events before you.

There is a scene, early on in the film, where the friends are driving up to the village, and the camera turns from right-side-up to upside-down as it follows the car along the road from behind. This is in many ways metaphorical of the descent into a new and uncharted world that the friends have no idea is coming. In many ways, this film reminded me of the Twilight Zone, albeit a more drawn out, in-depth, and complex episode with color. I mean that in the way it makes you sense mystery, intrigue, and a subtle undertone of horror throughout. You never know exactly what is happening, but you are captivated by it. You are along for the ride, and you are terrified by it – because it really feels like you are deeply within the village yourself – with all of these village members orchestrating some kind of plot in the background. You never see what the village people are doing in their own time, only in their interactions with the characters. This creates a feeling of uneasiness and a lack of insight into their motivations, which in turn creates a very interesting environment in the film. You can only perceive these people in the village based on their staged interactions in public, and that in itself is frightening.

Like Hereditary, it is the unknown that moves you with this movie. There is really so much I can say, but I need to stop rambling. In short, this movie made me feel incredibly uneasy, intrigued, confused, amused, shocked, laughing and genuinely horrified all at the same time. I don’t really know how I can describe this emotional state, but it’s almost like a melancholic horror. It’s not quite “horror”, but it’s not quite a thriller, either. It’s a little of both in the most beautiful way. It builds a wonderful world to explore, and explore the characters do, even if the exploration is being orchestrated. I had this incredibly cathartic moment at the end of this movie that I can’t exactly explain, but I can say it left me somewhat – happy? How does that make sense? I’m not sure how he did it, but he moved me in some way. I was left thinking about this movie for weeks afterwords and recommending it to all of my friends who enjoy horror and otherwise. Watch it in one sitting, in one place, with the sound all the way up. Get into the film – you will not regret it for a second. 10/10

This post ended up being much longer than I thought, but my summary is this: Ari is amazing at capturing true fear and dread, and general uneasiness in his two films. Everything, from the emotions to the visuals, are palpable in ways that really bring you into the movie. It gives me incredible excitement for whatever he will produce next.

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