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Difficult themes of incest and abuse are confronted head on in The Strange Thing About The Johnsons. The bold move has certainly paid off for director Ari Aster, whose 30-minute directorial debut stirred immediate reactions across the Web. Myriads swam towards the controversy, rushing to find the short to satisfy their curiosity.
What they would find is an artfully provocative film, unafraid to tackle the darkest corners of humanity. The intense satirical tale centres on a seemingly perfect family, who hides insidious secrets behind a smiling facade. Unbeknownst to their smiling neighbours and friends, Sidney (Billy Mayo) shares an incestuous relationship with his son; Isaiah (Brandon Greenhouse) has been molesting his father since he was twelve.
The disturbing subject, taboo to many, makes for dark intrigue. But it is the reverse expectations that rouse interest. It is disorienting to see the expected roles of father and son exchanged in this abusive relationship, where the latter is likely to be the victim. The inverted relations do well to evoke discomfort.
As does the mother’s inaction, which proves most thought-provoking. Aware about the transgression against her husband, Joan (Angela Bullock) watches the incident grow in audacity with each passing day. What began as a covert act in the backyard, then happens right next door to where she sits. Pushing the volume up, she chooses the easier route – to do nothing.
With all these years of feigning ignorance and avoiding action, choices slowly diminish over time. Consequences turn fatal. When the problem confronts her, she finds herself cornered into a cul-de-sac. The direct threat leaves her no other option, than to finally react. But she comes to realise that it was too late. All the choices she had made has led to a desperate end, where she loses everything important in her life.
Such a memorable message ends on a beautifully tragic note. It reminds us of a similarly powerful finale in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. In Joan’s dilemma, we see Daniel Plainview sit by the bowling alley, bloodied and devastated, before the words of a broken man spill, “I’m finished.”