Years before shocking the world with Hereditary and Midsommar, Ari Aster made his most disturbing project to date. The Strange Thing About the Johnsons was his thesis film at the American Film Institute’s grad school. It was released in 2011 and turned into a viral sensation over the years. The pitch-black satirical tragedy exposes the rot that festers underneath the pristine surface of respectable suburban life. It deals with the horrors of sexual abuse, incest, gaslighting, and complicity.
It’s a difficult and jarring watch, and it is meant to be. The only unsurprising thing about it is that it has been a lightning rod for controversy. But it is a great film and an incredibly important one too. It’s only 29 minutes long, but brilliantly voices the unspeakable in its brief duration.
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The idea for the film sprouted from a conversation between Aster and his friends. “We were talking about topics that are too taboo to be explored, and so we arrived at taboos that weren’t even taboos because they were so unfathomable, and the most popular was that of a son molesting his father. “That should never be made into a film!”
The film begins with a young Isaiah (Carlon Jeffery) masturbating when his father Sidney (Billy Mayo), accidentally walks in on him. It creates an awkward tension which Sidney tries to dispel by telling Isaiah that his action was natural and not taboo.
The viewer who gets into the film knowing that it centres on an abusive relationship between father and son might expect a tragically familiar dynamic of an adult exploiting a child. But Aster stops us in our tracks, forcing us to shun any preconceived notions. The first of the several shocking moments in the film comes when Sidney leaves his son’s room and it is revealed that Isaiah was masturbating to a photograph of his own father. Ironically, Sidney’s progressive speech is what backfires on him. Isaiah’s twisted mind thinks that Sidney referred to his incestuous desire as natural and not taboo. The groundwork for Isaiah’s future abuse is laid here, and this is perhaps what he refers to later in the film while victim-blaming Sidney.
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After Isaiah’s predilections are revealed, the film moves forward 14 years to when he’s getting married. Everyone except Sidney looks cheerful. We find out the reason in a disturbing shot where Isaiah (now played by Brandon Greenhouse) moves his hand down to Sidney’s backside, the second shocking revelation in the film. Isaiah acted on his desire at some point and has evidently been sexually abusing Sidney for a while. Any form of abuse can be severely crippling for the victim, but this taboo situation heightens and highlights just how bad it can get. Aster gives us something this difficult to process, thereby showing that anybody can become a perpetrator or a victim.
Sound and Silence
The film conveys a lot through its exceptional sound design. It depicts violent, horrific abuse without any explicit physical scenes using sound. Sidney lives in constant fear of his son. The sound of Isaiah’s approaching footsteps, as Sidney pens his memoir, create a sense of dread. The two major scenes of sexual violence — one at the wedding and the other in the bathroom — are preceded by the sound of glass shattering. This establishes a sense of foreboding and is symbolic of the illusion of respectability and normalcy being broken.
During both these scenes, there’s a third important presence whose viewpoint we are shown. This is Isaiah’s mother, Joan (Angela Bullock). During the wedding, she navigates her way through a sea of cheerful pastels while looking for her husband and her son. The festive music halts, the glass shatters, and she finds Isaiah molesting Sidney. She is utterly horrified, but the next jarring twist comes now. She wipes her tears, plasters on a smile, and walks away. Later, when Isaiah assaults Sidney in the bathroom, the act is conveyed through Sidney’s screams. The visuals that play out are of Joan hearing the sounds and turning up the volume of the TV in an attempt to drown them out.
The tragedy of the situation is fully established through her reaction. If we were thinking that Sidney should communicate with somebody to get help, Joan’s actions — or lack thereof — tell us that this could have been futile. She knew and chose to remain silent. Her disbelief, shame, and devastation keep her in denial. This reveals the ugly nature of complicity, which makes the bystander as culpable as the perpetrator.
Cry For Help
The details regarding the history of the abusive relationship between Sidney and Isaiah are fuzzy because of the time skip. How did it begin? How long has it gone on? Why hasn’t Sidney communicated about it thus far? The questions are open to interpretation. All we see is that he makes one desperate attempt to disclose what he has been through. He writes a memoir titled Cocoon Man: Confessions by Sidney Johnson which chronicles the abuse he has faced.
The title is telling. The word “cocoon” may imply that he tries to cope with the situation by the power of his own thoughts, imagining that he can cut himself off from external dangers. The same thing is also indicated when he listens to the self-help audio tape about positive thinking while bathing. The irony of this viewpoint is made evident immediately after this, when Isaiah attacks him. No amount of optimism can put a positive spin on this. The other important word is “confessions,” which contains an implication of guilt. He even writes in his memoir that both he and Isaiah are guilty of the crimes committed against him. Years of manipulation seems to have embedded itself into his conscience. He knows his son is doing wrong, but also believes his abuser’s narrative that they are both in this together at least a little.
Nevertheless, he tries to communicate his agony and hold on to the last vestiges of his autonomy through this memoir. It is tragic watching him trying to reveal everything to Joan. She already knows and has chosen to do nothing. After years of silence, secrecy, and shame, Sidney finally breaks his chains and risks it all to cry out for help. Despite his crippling fear, he rebels against his abuser and tries to tell his story to the world. But fortune has long forsaken him and his quest for escape ends with the fatal accident.
The power dynamics at play in this film are highly unusual and depicted with piercing precision. Isaiah’s complete authority over Sidney is established early on when he gropes him openly during the wedding photoshoot. Isaiah is cheerful and confident knowing he won’t be retaliated against. Sidney’s facial expression here stands in sharp contrast to the previous shot from 14 years ago. He’d been happy and smiling widely before the abuse had begun. Now he looks dead inside.
He lives in constant terror, freezing up whenever he senses his son close by. He has given up on fighting off his attacker and can barely even speak to him. Isaiah on the other hand, is a shrewd, manipulative sociopath who has learned to rule his family with an iron fist. He can act normally one moment and chill your spine, the next moment. When something displeases him, he vents it out on Sidney.
We can hear it when Sidney refuses the alcohol Isaiah gifted him, when Isaiah finds the memoir, and when he says, “You know how I feel about locked doors.” Isaiah claims to love Sidney, but assaults him as punishment for not opening the door. It is not even about perverted sexual passion in this case, it is purely about asserting dominance. He tries to gaslight Sidney, manipulating him to believe it was all his fault. He even has the audacity to play victim by saying, “This is your thing. Something you started.” He adopts every tactic necessary to retain control over his prey.
Isaiah also holds power over Joan, albeit in a different way. Even after she realises his true nature, she maintains a normal behavior with him. This is not simply denial, but a fear of defying him perhaps. During the dinner scene, he uses the same irritated, condescending tone with her that he used with Sidney. He shouts at her when the accident takes place, and tries to manipulate her and kill her later.
For most of the film, Joan silently allows Isaiah to continue assaulting Sidney. She is understandably shaken and could not possibly have prepared herself in any way to face such a situation. But more than being incapable of handling it, she is unwilling to deal with it. She doesn’t want a confrontation, so she descends into wilful ignorance. The trauma of the situation isn’t above the fear of public exposure. She neither talks to them privately nor acknowledges it out loud.
This changes when Sidney dies. That is when she finally decides to confront Isaiah. However, it seems that she is not looking for justice, but to selfishly clear her guilty conscience for being complicit. She grieves over Sidney as well as her own inaction. She calls Isaiah the “monster” he is, but we are soon left to question whether she is any better. If we’re led to thinking she’s now a changed person, the final shot changes that perception.
After she kills Isaiah out of self-defence, she clearly finds the Cocoon Man manuscript which Isaiah had possibly kept with himself. The film ends with her throwing this memoir in the fire, just like Isaiah had earlier promised Sidney he would. Her act proves that she is incapable of change and beyond any chance of redemption. Even after she’s lost her entire family, she prioritises her personal cocoon of suburban respectability. Sidney lost his life trying to give his memoir to the world and tell his story. By burning it, Joan erases the evidence of the abuse and wipes out the final shred of Sidney’s autonomy.
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