Ari Aster has had quite the career in the last few years. After releasing his first feature length film in 2018, the A24-distributed horror Hereditary, he has been called one of the best new directors working today. At only 33, his name is heard enough that you would think that he’s been steadily working in the film industry for several years now. Counting his student film, The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, he’s made 3 films in his career’s entirety, the third being this year’s Midsommar. His films, while spanning in subject matter, focus and even genre, all share a commonality. These films, however fantastical, absurd, or horrific they become, have all sprung from a kernel of truth: a truth that is the basis of so many realities. This truth is in the heart of families.
Aster’s short film The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, at first glance, sounds absurd – even vile. Centering on a black family, it’s revealed that for several years a family member has endured molestation at the hands of another, while all living under the same roof. The member who has been violated, abused both emotionally and physically, is the father, and this long abuse is at the hands of, both bizarrely and horrifically, his own son. This transgressive, over the top premise, however, has an element of truth undergoing every confrontation and engagement between the two. The abuse, defended by the son as “love”, is a defense not unheard in situations where parents try to defend such evil acts. The blaming and gaslighting are tools used by abusers and, while they’re said from the mouth of a character that is improbably committing these acts of violence, they’re still used by such in our world. Such truths don’t stop there. Despite becoming aware of this long-standing abuse (having known about it, however subconsciously, for far longer), the matriarch ignores her husband’s cries of pain and begging of mercy; for her to confront it would mean to confront her own culpability in the continuing of this abuse. Such experiences, where a family member knows of the abuse being perpetuated, but does nothing, are not at all unheard of. This film is an inversion, yes, but it’s an inversion of a devastating, awful reality of so many families.
Hereditary, a supernatural-based horror film, also continues this method of basing the proceedings and relationships on a common reality. Toni Collette’s Annie Graham had an emotionally distanced relationship with her now-deceased mother, and the film demonstrates something many families perpetuate and, sadly, inherit: trauma. Annie has her own distanced relationship with her eldest child, and with this relationship the film shows how parents themselves, however unknowingly, can continue the patterns of abuse inflicted upon them by their own parents. By the end the family is destroyed and in the ruins, something arises, free of the horror endured for so long. During every conversation between each family member, from Collette’s Annie to Alex Wolff’s Peter and Gabriel Byrne’s Steve, there is an unspoken undercurrent of resentment, anger, hatred and loathing. They don’t speak about this – their feelings, their relationships to one another – and instead continue to let it fester. With acknowledgement again comes culpability, and with such acknowledgements we must consider and admit how we can also be at fault for what’s being endured and continued. So, it isn’t admitted, and by the end everything is destroyed. They’ve killed themselves, damned each other, for what they refused to say. Despite the supernatural nature to many of the proceedings, it’s used as a manifestation of their crimes and cruelty. They, in the end, are brought down by what was hidden and buried. The Grahams destroyed their own family in the same way many have in reality. If The Strange Thing About the Johnsons is a distorted reflection of some families, Hereditary is a cautionary tale of what we’ll endure if we refuse to fix ourselves, and thus our families.
With these two films, what they share is much more obvious than what they differ, and despite how opposite Midsommar sounds, in that it focuses on a couple travelling to a remote European village during its once every 100-year festival, the film is grown from the same seed Hereditary and The Strange Thing About the Johnsons bloomed. Aster has claimed otherwise, and these prior statements might provoke people to disagree with this assessment. Yes, he’s called it a “breakup” film, but he’s also called it “Wizard of Oz for perverts”. Ignoring the surface humor within that description, remember that in the classic film the protagonist Dorothy is focusing on returning to her home in Kansas, where her uncle and aunt reside. She finds a new family in the world she finds herself in, and in the end, returns to the home she’s wanted throughout the story.
Midsommar’s protagonist Dani suffered an extraordinary loss when her sister committed a murder-suicide of herself and their parents. Dani, grief-stricken for months, tags along on her boyfriend’s trip (to his and his friends’ dismay). There, she is at first horrified by some of the customs of the village, but slowly she finds herself welcomed and accepted by the inhabitants.
Aster’s use of a bright, colorful palette indeed enhances how strange and otherworldly this place is, but it also captures the feelings one experiences when inducted into a new, loving family. The former shows everything we loathe about being part of a family: every baggage, trauma and all such feelings are shown in this film as the only thing binding this family together. There is no joy, love or care. With the latter, Midsommar shows us how families and family units can be beautiful, alluring and euphoric. With a family, you can share the pain, trauma and sorrow you burden yourself with. With a family, you don’t have to carry this alone. With a family, you’re a part of something bigger, a part of a whole. You’re essential to making it work. You are seen and loved. With a family, you never have to be alone again.
However, with Midsommar, Aster doesn’t show this as a pure solution with no drawbacks. The cult in Midsommar commits sacrifices and everyone has to be willing to give their life in service to their “family”. At the cost of being a part of something, you lose your own sense of self, and with a family, you can’t focus on just yourself. With every decision you make, you have to account for so many others. Can it be comforting? Yes, but it can also be a burden.
Through The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, Hereditary, and Midsommar, Aster has shown a fascination with the ties that bind a family. He’s aware of all the wounds, abuse, resentment and sometimes love that dwell within the people we grow up with. His films may feature decapitation, grotesquely absurd instances of abuse, the supernatural, a demon-worshipping cult and several horrific instances of murder, but these films demonstrate how Ari Aster is acutely tuned to the intricacies of familial bonds, and how he is one of our most insightful new directors working today.