The Johnsons are an attractive, well-to-do, upper-middle class family. Sidney, husband and father, is a famous poet, known and adored for his kindness and sensitivity. Joan, wife and mother, is a dutiful housewife, an obsessive homemaker and the life of every party. Their son, Isaiah, is a charismatic young man who has just gotten married to an equally appealing young woman. In fact, there is only thing that separates the Johnsons from their charming friends and neighbors: Isaiah, the son, has been molesting Sidney, the father, since he was twelve years old. And what's more, Sidney has written a memoir that chronicles, in great detail, the ins-and-outs of this unseemly father-son relationship. Will the manuscript ever see the light of day, or will young Isaiah have a thing or two to say about it? THE STRANGE THING ABOUT THE JOHNSONS is a dark satire of the domestic melodrama, which asks "What if...?" and then, for some reason, comes up with an answer.
This short film with a very warped and original premise is an instant classic of extreme cinema. Its a pretty straight forward dark satire that loads a lot of meaning into its 30 minutes. My initial impression was that director Ari Aster is a fan of Todd Haynes, Todd Solondz and maybe Steve McQueen. It lacks the finesse and commercialism that their work has, but there is something extremely powerful going on. Its out to shock, unnerve and entertain more while still revealing some great truths and make you think. It goes farther and its message is less obvious than usual. This is made by some kids straight out of film school, which is clear in the freshness and snotty attitude given to the cliche dramatic tropes. Its punk rock. Its out to smash expectations and leave your jaw on the floor. And its successful. But maybe what is so great about TSTATJ is that its still so classical at its core. The film, its story, its characters and its American setting all have a stylish, familiar veneer coating the waiting raw brutality. The performance is deadpan and dead-on (the cast is unbelievable and the crew work well with the small scope). Aster can't capture the technical precision and glorious production of his peers, so he chooses to outdo them in sheer boldness. Its a nightmare send-up of classic melodramas like the work of Douglas Sirk, the great director who influenced those other great satirists and disciples of melodrama. But what is often missed by imitators of Sirk's work is Sirk's camp attitude and sneaking social commentary. Aster made sure to deliver that with "The Johnsons".
This short film like a nihilistic, aggressive rejection of the middle class ideas of normality and culture, store-bought poets and loveless marriages done with a fake smile and serious brain. It sympathizes with the plight of the father as much as the son, which I think is most radical. The son is a monster, but he is also the biggest victim. Only this filmmaker's generation could tackle such a concept and give the son so much color, menace, satirical weight and tragedy. This is a story about love gone bad. Familial love, romantic love, sexual love and whatever love the American Dream is supposed to inspire in us. Issues that are considered too delicate or dangerous will always become even more so if we avoid confrontation. This story is about confrontation. Its about confronting confrontation before it confronts you. Some viewers ask, "Why is it so disturbing though?" Because it has to be. Because life is and it only gets worse when you ignore the elephant in the room. I think that moral is knocked out of the park by the ingenious casting of all the principal characters with black actors.
The family were originally written to be white, but changing their race opens up wider parameters of the problem. The same way having a son rape his father reveals our own expectations of what victimization is, changing their race changes how we may react. It highlights another, more victimized American horror, the commodification and indifference to suffering when it happens to black people. Tragedy is tragedy and the color of the victims shouldn't change how we feel. Society is conditioned to find white pain less attractive than black pain. But in the context of this story, the black pain has to be felt worse because THIS IS SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN TO WHITE PEOPLE. We expect other tragedies to happen to black families in film. Its a terrible cliche at this point. Worse, is that tragedy has haunted black people in reality, ever since they were "Americanized" so long ago. We know blacks suffer, but we never see them suffering in their uniquely American way on films because filmmakers are afraid to show them equally, afraid to show their humanity as equal to whites, but their struggle as much worse. "Johnsons" reminds you that black families have caught the same social ills the same as any American family and its only compounded by the silent evils of institutional racism and white supremacy. Whats haunting is how expected, understood and frankly boring this story of sexual deviancy would be with a white family. Because we've heard about it in the news before. Aster knows that showing a black version of the same crimes will illicit so many different responses and perhaps more sympathy, transforming it into something more profound and mocking. We are only mildly shocked that a son is having sex with his father in a world that has child pornography and bestiality accessible through a Smartphone. So Aster treats the sickness of the plot like an inconsequential MacGuffin. Our focus is that these black people have come so far, attained that American dream and white status of success, and yet they are still victims, going through the same horrors as the white Middle class. Perhaps the director knows that its the overall American whiteness in these characters, that existed before they were cast, that is the problem. With a black cast, the conflict becomes a metaphor for how black American lives are playing in a strange script daily, written by whites, for whites and that disregards, laughs at and still profits from black pain. This film is not a comedy. Its as serious a satire as can be. The punchline is that race is the biggest surprise in a film about son-on-father rape. We are confronted with our own conditioned callousness to their situation. OF COURSE THEY GO THROUGH THESE SAME PROBLEMS. Its our own racism that has stopped us from realizing that The Black Johnsons exist in same world with The White Johnsons.
There is a kind of playful parallel drawn with that squeaky clean imaginary "perfect" black middle American family, The Cosbys. This film predicted the psychosexual illness that masks itself in these built up stereotypes and altruistic Good Guy mantras. Aster may be inadvertently warning us that this white version of normality is what tears at the heart and soul and mind of black men even worse than it does to whites. They are outsiders forced to play by rules just to eat at the same table. But by then, they've been beaten down mentally and spiritually until they don't even resemble their own original humanity. They are victims and the "monsters" that America views them as are roles that America has cast them in. Whether Aster did this consciously or subconsciously, I do not know. But I believe he is humanizing the black experience by showing them fall victim to the ultimate monstrosity - incest and sexual abuse. He's not blaming America. He's blaming America for not understanding that they are just as human and infallible. We shouldn't see these characters in a different context, but we do and he's willing to hold up a mirror up to the audience to explain why: We want them to be monsters... To distract us from the real monsters. Its an analysis of the racist vile brewing in a Post-Obama America.
The final shot is of a manuscript being burned in the father's fireplace. Ari Aster hopes that this nightmare stays a nightmare and never becomes a reality. And that parts of our own prejudices and repressed sickness burns away with the finale of this work. He's destroying this evil reality. Its a stunning debut, full of freedom and bravery and savage wit and I would love to see what this young director can say in a feature length film.