Short of the Week

The Strange Thing About the Johnsons

The Johnsons are an attractive, upper-middle class family with a perverse little secret. Ari Aster directs, this dark satire of the domestic melodrama.

It’s no secret that polarizing things tend to garner attention. Nothing is more boring or milquetoast than that which strives to be middle of the road. Ask any fame seeker, abject hatred is preferable to agreeable mediocrity. For that reason alone, it’s no surprise that Ari Aster’s The Strange Thing About the Johnsons has received so much attention. Take a quick perusal of  the video’s comments on YouTube and you’ll find everything from effusive acclaim to disgusted vitriol. In terms of the internet, that means it’s a hit.

Without spoiling too many plot details, the film revolves around a taboo relationship between a father and son in a seemingly normal suburban family.  Well, actually, taboo may not be the right word, for in order for something to socially unacceptable, it needs to be somewhat fathomable. In The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, Aster has constructed a situation so absurd, so perverse that it’s practically comical, almost as if he is daring the audience to accept his twisted tale. But, this contrast–the comically absurd versus the deeply dramatic–is what makes the film so special. The film manages to carry heavy loads of both emotional gravity and dark humor, yet never collapses under the weight of either.

The performances are especially strong. All the major roles are played with a surprising amount of range and skill. For the character of the son, Aster cast his good friend, Brandon Greenhouse, whose portrayal is both disturbing, but also, surprisingly, sad. He’s not a villain. Reprehensible, maybe, but not purely evil. A special mention should also be given to Angela Bullock, who plays the family’s mother.  With her character’s lack of action–her desire to maintain the facade of normalcy–slowly we begin to realize that she may, in fact, be the most twisted character of them all.

Although the film features an all black cast, the movie is, for all intents and purposes, colorblind. Aster isn’t making a point about the African American experience (considering he is a white director, that would be disingenuous). In fact, perhaps the most intriguing thing about the film’s approach to race is how it doesn’t deal with it much at all. Instead, Aster has created a heightened, visceral dissection of the seedy, suburban underbelly. It’s about the unspeakable actions that occur in the dark rooms hidden behind the white picket fences. Here, the film is undeniably reminiscent of indie director Todd Solondz’s work–the rare type of narrative that satirizes the conventions of melodrama while also embracing them. The substantive content is complemented by the short’s high production values. The film was shot on 35mm, instantly indoctrinating the picture with that “real” movie feel. Lighting is dramatic–almost nightmarish. With certain scenes, Aster’s direction is reminiscent of a well-crafted horror movie, dimly lit rooms with heavy shadows and meticulously chosen light sources.

If there is a criticism, it circles back to the film’s blatantly risqué subject matter. Despite the movie’s strengths, one has to ask if Aster manufactured his scenario simply to elicit attention, rather than resonance. After all, as the vapid nature of celebrity scandal indicates, controversy is easy, high-minded content is not.  But, I’m not that cynical. I think Aster’s picture is about more than just shocking its audience to attention. Sometimes in order to understand the nature of humanity, one has to delve into its dark recesses, plunging into that which is so perverse that eventually we come out the other side with a better understanding of what makes us good to begin with. Regardless, love it or hate it, I can guarantee that when you watch The Strange Thing About the Johnsons you won’t be able to look away.

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Ivan is a filmmaker, video editor, and motion graphic artist from the Washington, DC area. He is an avid movie watcher and podcaster. He’s also quite handsome and charming (at least that's what his Mom says). For more information about Ivan, visit Lucky 9 Studios.
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Griff-Griffin/661549622 Andrew Griff Griffin
  • http://www.andrewsallen.com Andrew S Allen

    Whoa. Heavy, taboo stuff.

  • David Phifer

    Wow, this is a crazy(and well done) film. Perversion and abuse in the name of so-called “love.” The actors were superb, especially the actor who played the father. I don’t think it was “too” risque, I think this scenario is more common than people think; nothing wrong with shining light on truth. An amazing film.

  • Mable Lean

    I’m surprised it took you this long to feature this gem.

  • Anonymous

    FANTASTIC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/peelahrm Peelahr Moore

    Very good film.

  • Michael Morlan

    Absolutely Brilliant! Subject, performance, photography, production design. Brilliant.

  • class

    sick

  • http://www.facebook.com/christian.skelley Christian Skelley

    Brave story telling. Great job!!

  • Anonymous

    That movie is filth if black middle class families didn’t have it hard enough. This is a shock and awe way for you to associate a black sucessful family with something dark and sick. This does two things makes you not want to aspire to have a regular family which is a problem in the black community and second lets other races view us as subhuman. Why aren’t there any white family movies like this??

  • http://www.facebook.com/brad.washington3 Brad Washington

    typical pro black comment. appreciate art, man.

  • p.J. Lore

    What difference does it make if its white or black? We are not back in the era of separate but equal you know. Why must you further perpetuate the idea that black is not equal by saying that this movie does not apply to black people? Its a film, it doesn’t have to apply to anyone. It is a piece of contextual art, expressed by a director with a vision. Don’t mess it up with your inherent reverse racism. All ridiculousness aside, this film is genius. I wish the film could have gotten a bigger release. The performances were amazing.

  • ecw

    Theres actually a whole network developed its called Investigation Discovery. Its dedicated to bizarre and crazy white people. Also this is fiction, the real dark and sick stuff associated with black families is put out on World Star and Media takeout everyday.

  • bingobob
  • Penny

    I haven’t seen this movie. I will see this movie, but I will say now that violence has increased in movies over the ages. And people gain new ideas everyday about how to be very wicked or good. In this light, I would say this movie is colorblind but we don’t want any ideas in the head of young black folks. Not like this. We want superheroes and shit like that.