L&D opted to watch the Bears flame out against the Packers this past Thursday night, hence skipping the week’s somewhat slim cinematic offerings. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t been out and about. Indeed, over the past couple weeks we managed to see a couple of movies that we were initially reluctant to see, movies that were seemingly as different as night and day…
On the night side we saw Ready or Not, and if you’ve seen the trailer for this one, you pretty much know the gist of how it plays out. Grace (Samara Weaving) is a beautiful young family-less woman who is slated to marry into an eccentric family, heirs to a board game fortune. As part of the spousal initiation, she must draw a card from the family heirloom box that selects a game to play with the family, something mundane like checkers or Jenga. But once every generation or so, the game is hide-and-seek, the kind where the incumbents have until dawn to track down the spouse and sacrifice him/her to the cause, with the cause being another generation of familial fortune. So, by definition this one is mostly an overnight affair, mostly played out in the confines of a spooky old house, with mostly comedic-style violence, and an ending that is mostly never quite in doubt.
You have to give the filmmakers some credit here: they gave away the broad strokes of the plot from wire-to-wire up front and they were still able to make thing reasonably compelling. That’s a pretty good trick, isn’t it? I went in with low expectations and this one soared over the $5 bar.
That brings us to the day side, where L&D finally got brave enough to take in Midsommar (Ari Aster’s extended director’s cut, no less), where the sun shines deep into the northern Swedish night, and the idiosyncrasies of IKEAesque paganism are out in the open for all to see, at least in principle.
The movie doesn’t start off that way, however, instead setting us up stateside in the dark, dark snowy days of winter, where we see snapshots of the fractured relationship between Dani (Florence Pugh) and her idiot boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor). The opening salvo of a murder-suicide in Dani’s family is troubling enough that Christian decides not to pull the trigger on the breakup, and instead somehow bungles his way into inviting her to tag along with him and his grad student anthro buddies for the Midsommar festival hosted by the commune of his buddy, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren).
So that gets us to Sweden, and after a few Shining-esque overheads, director Aster literally turns the world upside-down on us as the kids make their way into the sun-drenched village of Harga; the movie is not light on symbolism. I’m guessing an aggressive Google search would turn up a few hours of reading of the myriad meanings of the white frocks, the various shapes, and the character archetypes trotted out — the intellectual, the opportunist, the skeptic, and, of course, “the fool” (remarkably similar to the anthro buddies I had in college, I might add).
On top of the over-the-top symbolism, the movie isn’t terribly shy about foreshadowing, either. In good Chekov fashion, if you see a picture on the wall of a woman trimming her nether regions and baking the clippings into a cake in the first act, expect to be pulling that hair out of your teeth before things wrap up, okay?
Between the visuals and the music and the director’s patience with scenes and the hyper-deliberate pace of the plot-lines, the movie does a spectacular job of inducing dread. It wasn’t terribly scary scary, but it was unnerving and more disturbing than your average bear. The violence has a visceral quality about it that doesn’t show up in most comedic or antiseptic violence that characterizes much of what comes through the theater these days. It’s a provocative movie. Indeed, I am still thinking about the face plant and the “blood eagle” all these days later.
Also way over the $5 bar. L&D approve of this extended message.
Although these two films are cut from different cloth, they each explore a central question of the day: how insular groups treat outsiders (with the protagonist(s) being the outsiders in both cases). Where you want to take this metaphor — capitalist v. collectivist societies, the upcoming U.S. presidential election — is up to you.
The Ready or Not clan absorbs outsiders subject to a few caveats. First, these outsiders are selected by a member of the family (i.e., prospective spouses). Second, the new prospective member must play this game business, which tacitly makes entrance to the family renouncing any previous allegiances. The bride is an orphan and any of her family or friends that were around for the wedding were certainly not around for the wedding night (This is almost certainly done for expositional simplicity, but a reasonable person can connect a few dots). Then the
million billion dollar question is whether the family actually has to adhere to the commitments of its forefathers or not — what are the consequences of reneging on a deal from the past? This question is somewhat latent through most of the movie, but shows up spectacularly down the stretch.
Here is the thesis of the movie: the really wealthy really are mostly indifferent toward you. They are ruthless, possibly incompetent, certainly deluded, and they get to make most (but not all) of the rules up as they go along. If you’ve been watching HBO’s brilliant Succession, this theme should resonate with you. They don’t necessarily have much in common with one another, other than a mercenary intensity in maintaining their lives in the lap of luxury. At least you know where they stand, right?
Although the community in Midsommar is also pretty selective about who gets to come in, the community here is a true socialist paradise. They eat together, sleep together, pray together, and do a lot of other things together that you might not immediately think of as community activities. That’s true at least in terms of what is out in the open and bathed in the sunshine. Who knows what’s going behind closed doors? Although there is a titular head who is ostensibly in charge, it is pretty clear that that’s not who is actually in charge. Of course, the community rules are the community rules, but there is more than a hint that these rules are subject to selective interpretation of the higher ups. As a result, the treatment of outsiders is pretty much on a case-by-case basis and by the end here you can probably make the case that there wasn’t much of a doubt about how this one was going to play out.
Although the movie is ostensibly about a break up, it is much better as a meditation on the pursuit of the collective good, whatever that happens to be. Pro tip: be careful when someone tells you that your sacrifice for the cause is going to be painless.
Ultimately, I would argue that each of these films explores how we think about and how we treat those outside of our immediate circles, however defined. More pointedly, each explores the danger and limits of extremism (are there limits of extremism?), whether the source is a self-interested patriarchy or the socialist matriarchy. The upshot is that maybe night and day have more in common than we are willing to admit. And, it is possibly instructive to think about which of these worlds is more resilient and durable.
Or maybe that’s just how it is in the movies.