The Disturbing Secrets of “The Strange Thing About The Johnsons”

Years before captivating audiences with his films “Hereditary” and “Midsommar,” director Ari Aster shocked the world with his most disturbing project to date. “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons” was Aster’s thesis film at the American Film Institute’s grad school, released in 2011 and eventually turning into a viral sensation. This pitch-black satirical tragedy exposes the dark reality that hides beneath the surface of seemingly respectable suburban life, tackling themes of sexual abuse, incest, gaslighting, and complicity.

Unveiling the Taboo

The idea for the film sprang from a provocative conversation between Aster and his friends about exploring topics considered too taboo to be tackled. From these discussions emerged the concept of a son molesting his own father. While this topic seemed unfathomable to them, it became the driving force behind “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons.”

The film begins with a young Isaiah caught in an intimate act by his father, Sidney. What follows is an unexpected twist that challenges preconceived notions. Isaiah’s twisted mind interprets Sidney’s progressive and supportive speech as a validation of his incestuous desires, laying the groundwork for the years of abuse that follow.

Sound and Silence: Conveying Horror Through Subtlety

One of the film’s remarkable aspects is its exceptional sound design, which effectively conveys violent and horrific abuse without explicit physical scenes. Sidney lives in constant fear of his son, and the sound of Isaiah’s approaching footsteps creates a palpable sense of dread. The film utilizes glass shattering as a symbol of the disruption of the illusion of normalcy. During key scenes of sexual violence, Isaiah’s mother, Joan, becomes the audience’s perspective, forced to confront the horrifying reality unfolding before her.

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Cry For Help: The Unheard Pleas of the Silent

The film leaves many details regarding the abusive relationship between Sidney and Isaiah open to interpretation. Nevertheless, it is evident that Sidney’s memoir, “Cocoon Man: Confessions by Sidney Johnson,” serves as his desperate attempt to disclose the abuse he has experienced. His struggle for autonomy and the hope of breaking free from his tormentor are tragically cut short by a fatal accident.

Unveiling Power Dynamics

“The Strange Thing About the Johnsons” masterfully portrays the power dynamics within an abusive relationship. Isaiah, with complete authority over his father, openly asserts dominance during a wedding photoshoot. Meanwhile, Sidney lives in constant terror, resigned to his fate. Isaiah’s manipulative and shrewd nature is evident as he uses various tactics to maintain control, even resorting to gaslighting and victim-blaming.

Cocoon Woman: Confronting Complicity

Throughout the film, Joan silently allows Isaiah to continue his assault on Sidney, driven by fear and an unwillingness to confront the truth. It is only after Sidney’s death that Joan confronts Isaiah, but her motives become questionable. Is she seeking justice, or is it merely a desperate attempt to clear her conscience? Ultimately, Joan’s actions reveal her unchanged nature, prioritizing suburban respectability over acknowledging the abuse that destroyed her family.

“The Strange Thing About the Johnsons” is a deeply unsettling and important film that explores the darkest corners of human nature. Aster’s unique storytelling and the talented cast’s performances make it a must-watch for those seeking a thought-provoking cinematic experience.

Rating: 4.5/5

Watch it on: YouTube | Vimeo

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