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Film / The Strange Thing About the Johnsons

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A dark secret lies within this family.

"I love you, Dad… but this makes it hard."

The Strange Thing About the Johnsons is a Psychological Horror short film written and directed by Ari Aster as his thesis film while studying at the American Film Institute's graduate school.

The film focuses on the eponymous Johnson family: Sidney, a successful poet; Joan, his wife; and Isaiah, his charismatic son. Not much time passes before the film reveals what exactly the "strange thing" about this family is, at which point things quickly go downhill.

It premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in January of 2011 but gained infinitely more attention following its leaking online in November of that year. Out of the sheer advent of public curiosity towards the aforementioned "strange thing," the film went viral, receiving a polarized mix of reactions from acclaim to disgust.

Undoubtedly one of if not the most popular short of Aster's, it alongside Munchausen (2013) helped him get the attention of A24, where his career continued with feature films.

As the film's entire plot hangs on the Wham Shot in its opening, all spoilers are unmarked. It is strongly advised that you watch the short first, then come back here.

The Strange Thing About the Johnsons provides examples of:

  • Abusive Offspring: Isaiah regularly sexually abuses his own father, Sidney. However, Isaiah's Hannibal Lecture towards the end implies that it was Sidney who started the abuse in the first place, but given how sociopathic Isaiah is, it's ambiguous whether or not that's true.
  • An Aesop: Anybody can be an abuser, and abuse is bad no matter who does it.
  • Ambiguous Situation: The origins of Isaiah and Sidney's sexual relationship are unclear, and that's the crux of the film's identity as a psychological thriller. There are a few different interpretations, but they mostly boil down to one of two possibilities:
    • 1) Isaiah is a deeply disturbed individual who has been in love with his own father since puberty, and as such, treats his dad the way an abusive, jealous lover would. Sidney's book explains his feelings of guilt and powerlessness to his wife, as he's been pressganged into an affair by his Psychopathic Manchild son. This is supported by Isaiah's confrontation with his mother, as he's wearing the clothes in his father's funeral portrait.
    • 2) Isaiah is a deeply disturbed individual who was sexually abused by his own father. At some point in the past (the opening masturbation scene would imply puberty), Sidney took advantage of Isaiah's feelings, but Isaiah never outgrew his attraction to his father. Sidney's book is a confession to his wife on how his molesting their son had grown completely out of control. This is supported by Isaiah's accusation that Sidney was the one to initiate it, and thus they're both equally at fault. What little we see of Sidney's book also has him imply that he acknowledges his own guilt and role in the situation.
  • Big Bad: Depending on who you ask, Isaiah and Sidney could equally be this. Initially, the audience is led to believe that Isaiah is the villain, due to his sexual abuse of his father, but his Hannibal Lecture to him near the end implies that Sidney abused him first and it snowballed from there. Considering there is no indication of abuse from the father's end, the possibility that Isaiah is simply Victim-Blaming him is still open.
  • Big "NO!": Sidney screams this when Isaiah busts open the bathroom door while he is taking a bath.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: Quite the understatement; one of the squickiest examples of this in recent memory.
  • Bleed 'Em and Weep: Joan starts crying Broken Tears after killing Isaiah.
  • Book Burning: A variant involving the paper-only manuscript of Sidney's memoir detailing Isaiah's abuse. He leaves it on Joan's bed, but Isaiah finds it and vows to burn it; he then takes another copy he had hidden beneath the floorboards, which actually does get burned at the end.
  • Bystander Syndrome: On multiple occasions in the film, Joan is made fully aware of Isaiah's abuse of Sidney — either by seeing it firsthand or hearing it — but chooses not to do anything, thereby allowing it to continue. Even worse is that in her final conversation with Isaiah, she reveals that she'd seen the signs of his abuse in Sidney potentially since it began.
  • Caught with Your Pants Down: The film opens with Sidney walking in on Isaiah masturbating to a picture. He tries to reduce the awkwardness by giving him a speech about how it's a natural thing to do and then leaves, after which we find out that the picture was of Sidney.
  • Creator Cameo: Ari Aster cameos as Dr. Storm Rickles, Ph.D., who made the "words of encouragement" tape that Sidney is listening to in the bathtub when Isaiah rapes him.
  • Deconstructive Parody: According to Ari Aster, he chose the most socially abhorrent premise he could think of for his senior thesis film to stand in stark contrast to the conventional, "politically correct," and Oscar Bait-y shorts made by AFI's graduating students.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Isaiah appears to have a loving relationship with his wife. However, at one point while he's making out with her, he glares intensely at Sidney, hinting at his larger preference for men, or at least his father.
  • Driven to Suicide: Possibly; it's not made explicitly clear if Sidney's death via car was accidental or intentional.
  • Downer Ending: Sidney dies after getting hit by a car. After his funeral, Joan confronts Isaiah, demanding to know the truth, and she is forced to kill him in self-defense when he tries to murder her. Afterward, she burns Sidney's memoir, leaving her as the only one who knows of what her son did to his father as well as the fact that her ignorance of said abuse contributed in part to both of their deaths.
  • Extreme Doormat: Overlapping with Pushover Parents; Sidney is this for his son, as he makes little to no effort to stand up to him.
  • Fan Disservice: Apart from the fact that the sexual acts in the film are committed by a son towards his father, Isaiah manages to give oral sex in the most uncomfortable way imaginable, looking more like a rat gnawing through a trash bag rather than a romantic partner, not helped by the fact Sidney is obviously not enjoying the experience.
  • Footsie Under the Table: Isaiah does this to Sidney during dinner.
  • Hannibal Lecture: Isaiah gives one to Sidney in a last-ditch effort to stop him from publishing the manuscript, which reveals that Sidney (possibly) could've been responsible for Isaiah's compulsions by sexually abusing and manipulating him first, and it's dishonest for him to assume victimhood.
  • Happily Married: To Isaiah's chagrin, Joan and Sidney are happily married to each other throughout the movie.
  • Hate Sink: Isaiah Johnson is a violent abuser who sexually abused his father for 14 years and later tried to kill his mother after deflecting the blame of his father's death from him.
  • Idiot Ball: If Sidney had been a little more careful with the manuscript to his memoir, the movie would have taken an entirely different path. Instead, he treats it as if he wants Isaiah to read it. With his first copy, he hides it under a pillow but not entirely so that it could be noticed from a couple yards away and lets Isaiah into the room where it is being hidden, albeit reluctantly. With his second copy, he carries it out in the open despite the fact he knows Isaiah is currently in the same house he's in and was already caught by him with the first copy.
  • Kill It with Fire: Subverted; Isaiah attempts to shove Joan's head into a fireplace, but she gets ahold of the nearby fire iron and gets the upper hand in the fight.
  • Leave the Camera Running: After Joan is forced to kill Isaiah, the camera lingers on a shot of her sobbing in despair for quite some time.
  • Lethal Letter Opener: When Isaiah slams Joan into Sidney's desk, she picks up a letter opener sitting there and stabs Isaiah in the chest. It doesn't outright kill him but slows him down enough for Joan to gain the upper hand as their fight continues.
  • Look Both Ways: Justified; Sidney is so torn up by the aforementioned Hannibal Lecture that he runs off in a daze and is hit by a van before he can get out of the way. One could also interpret this as a suicide, which is perfectly understandable given the circumstances.
  • Loose Floorboard Hiding Spot: Sidney has kept a copy of his manuscript hidden under a floorboard.
  • Noodle Incident:
    • When Isaiah finds that Sidney's locked the bathroom door as he's taking a bath, he says, "You know how I feel about locked doors!"
    • When Joan confronts Isaiah at the end, she alludes to something that he did on his prom night that had Sidney crying when he drove him home, which indicates just how long the abuse was going on.
  • Offing the Offspring: Joan kills Isaiah in the end, although it's purely out of self-defense and brings her zero satisfaction.
  • "Open!" Says Me: A locked bathroom door is no match for Isaiah, as he has the strength to kick it open.
  • Parental Incest: A one-sided, forced, incestuous relationship between Isaiah and his dad, and a rare example where the child is the abuser and the parent is the victim.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Sidney does not tell anyone what his son is doing to him in fear of his reputation. He finally decides to confess it in a memoir he plans to publish, but before he can, he gets hit by a car and is killed on impact.
  • Pushover Parents: Neither Sidney nor Joan seem to attempt to punish Isaiah or have him arrested for his actions.
  • Rape Discretion Shot: The movie does this several times.
    • The first is when Joan sees Isaiah unbuckling Sidney's pants in order to personally pleasure him. The camera moves up to Sidney's uncomfortable face right before the underwear comes down.
    • The second is during Sidney's confessional essay; he appears to be writing down one of the many times he was taken advantage of by Isaiah, but the only thing we see is that the experience "almost tore [his] mouth".
    • The third is when Isaiah rapes Sidney in the bathtub. Right after Isaiah kicks the bathroom door down, the film cuts to Joan watching TV and trying to drown out Sidney's cries by increasing the volume.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Who really started the abusive incestuous relationship? The film doesn't really delve into the details. Isaiah claims Sidney started it and Sidney's manuscript implies that he's responsible to some degree, but considering Isaiah's position as the abuser and the possibility of Victim-Blaming, the truth is much murkier than that.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Not only did Isaiah accidentally get his dad killed, but he also tried to shove his mother's face into a fireplace after she attacked him.
  • The Sociopath: In public, Isaiah is a charming, successful man with a promising marriage. In private, he is a cold-hearted rapist who has been treating his father as his personal plaything for years and is unwilling to admit that it's his fault for doing so.
  • Springtime for Hitler: Ari Aster stated that, after seeing past works made by fellow alums, he chose to make the worst thing he could think of at the American Film Institute, which is one of the most respected film schools in the United States but also an industry school that encourages their students to make more safe and conventional movies. Little did he know that many film critics would embrace it more for its genuine merits than its shock values.
  • Teens Are Monsters: Isaiah, in spades. At his core, he's a sociopath and a rapist who's been manipulating his own father for years.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: Joan, at Sidney's funeral; also Sidney himself during Isaiah's wedding, especially when he and Isaiah are behind the fence.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Isaiah has a massive one after Sidney is killed.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Isaiah is a very successful person and is married to boot. Fair to say the memoir is the only thing that would unravel his horrible secret.
  • Wham Line:
    • Isaiah's Hannibal Lecture to Sidney starts off with some regular victim-blaming (accusing Sidney of being complicit with his actions), but then he begins to imply that he's not as innocent as we've come to expect.
      "I didn't ask for this! This is your thing, something you started."
    • Later, he says something even more incriminating:
      "You are not just my father; you're my friend. You're my best friend, and maybe we can just agree that that's a beautiful thing, and not something to be perverted and corrupted and mutilated by your warped and confused conscience."
  • Wham Shot: The opening scene ends with one that sets the tone of the film hard — the photo Isaiah was masturbating to was of his dad.
  • Within Arm's Reach: Isaiah tries to kill his mother Joan by shoving her head into the fireplace. As he's doing so, she manages to grab a nearby fire poker and bludgeon him to death with it.
  • Yandere: Isaiah is one to his own father, being jealous of his own mother and willing to cause harm to her.
  • You Monster!: Joan calls her son out for inadvertently killing his father, using the trope phrase verbatim.