"The Strange Thing about the Johnsons" is an indie movie written and directed by Ari Aster. It is a 29-minute emotional bender, that has turned the internet upside down. Despite being a few years old, the movie is just now going viral in 2017 and it is completely overtaking the internet with many viewers expressing deep disgust, hate, and shame towards the film and its director. However, there is also a large amount of support for the film, not because people liked it in the sense of, "oh what a great movie", but that they realize the message the movie is trying to convey or at least the perceived message is of utter importance. For this article, I plan to stray away from simply reiterating the director's goal and focus on the impact this movie has left on me, and those around based on numerous debates I've already entertained.
Disclaimer: this movie is not for the faint of heart, while not explicitly graphic, the movie does a great job at making viewers uncomfortable and squeamish just by the sounds they hear, the intensity, and the way your mind will instinctively fill in the blanks to make sense of the scenes. Since rape is an extremely emotional topic, I do not advise jumping headfirst into this film, rather read reviews and the plot and possibly gauge how much you can take. Perhaps watch the movie scene by scene, breaking it up into 5 - 10-minute segments. The Strange Thing About the Johnsons deals more with the emotional after effect rape victims have to endure, and gives perspective into their everyday lives and even the twisted mindset of the abuser. Beyond the memes and harsh criticism, this movie has a unique lesson, that we tend to push away or otherwise ignore.
Sidney Johnson, a decorated poet walks in on his 12-year-old son, Isaiah, masturbating. In this initial scene, many have no idea what this film is about but know it deals with incest and sexual abuse automatically assume he will be the offender and possibly assault his son. However, Sidney gracefully cements his character as a loving and tender father in the first 3 minutes. It is only until the end of this intro scene that Isaiah reveals the photograph he was masturbating to, and we see it is a Polaroid photograph of Sidney shirtless at the beach. At this moment your brain is probably trying to digest what in the hell is about to happen, every messed up scenario you prepared for gets thrown out the window and this is where many people had to take a break as they were not ready to deal with the dilemma they now face, the fact that this movie is about Isaiah's fascination with his father and where it will lead.
Now, this is where we break down this scene and what's so powerful about it. See, we are given a scenario where normally the older individual is going to be the vile creature, but instead, we see the early stages of a child potentially plotting something dark. However to the child, it is something innocent, it is something out of love, but to us it is vile and that's the major turn off automatically for many. To acknowledge that our perception is going to be tried, twisted, and tossed around can be too great a shocker, simply out of fear of what is to come next. It doesn't help that as Sidney leaves with the best intention of making his son feel normal for masturbating, he did not know that Isaiah was masturbating at the image of him.
This is one of the most important parts of the film, because essentially Sidney keeps Pandora's box open by being a good parent, and dismissing this taboo stigma on masturbation making you weird. By effectively telling him that this situation wasn't taboo because now they talked about it and it was out in the open, his son was able to twist that to fit his narrative. Even Isaiah's cryptic, "I love you" seemed to be more like a test for him to ensure his father was on board in his twisted version of the events.
-Sidney's Conflict -
The scenes instantly transition to a photoshoot of a young Johnson family with Isaiah constantly giving his dad looks of adornment, while his mother constantly shifts his head to look at the camera and smile. 14 years later, we see Sidney happy with his family while Isaiah looks detached when he's not looking at his father. Fast forward, and we now see an adult Isaiah getting married, everyone looks happy, except Sidney who looks detached and, quite frankly, dead inside. We even get to see Isaiah whisper in his ear "Thanks for everything pops" before he slides his hand down Sidney's backside and squeezes his ass.
This officially cements the fears most of you felt that this story was going to lead to Isaiah sexually assaulting his father. The movie takes no time in making sure that you know, this is a reality for Sidney, this is his life, a son who mistook his love for romantics, and as he squeezes Sidney you can see the pain and discomfort in his face. We can only imagine how long he's been abused by Isaiah.
Now, this is going to be another hallmark point in the film, Sidney's wife Joan goes to look for the father and son. We see her interact with guests, asking for the whereabouts of the groom and his father, even Isaiah's new wife has no idea where he is. She finally hears a bottle break away from the party, she inches closer to a white fence with a peephole and the festive music that had been playing finally coming to a silent hush. You know what's coming, don't you? It's what was on your mind the entire time Joan searched for them. The sounds now being taken over by grunts and the sounds of lips smacking. Joan finally looks through the hole, and we see Isaiah kissing all over Sidney who mind you still has the deadest expression that you'll ever see unless you've met a sexual abuse victim. As Isaiah gets on his knees to force oral sex on his father we cut back to Sidney's deadpan expression and Joan's horrified face.
Now, this is where things come full circle, many of you had to have been wondering probably, where is his mama? Where is his wife? In this moment Joan shows horror on her face, then changes to disgust like she's about to puke, but she recollects herself, she wipes her eyes, fixes her dress, pulls back in the puke, and puts a smile on her face. We now have a complete image, Sidney an older emotional man whose being abused by his own son, who is clearly in shape and has a strong hold over him. We see Joan his wife, Isaiah's mother, who simply ignores what's going. She chooses to turn away and look in the other direction rather than help her husband? At this point, you have to ask yourself why did she do it? Was she protecting herself? Protecting the family's image? Did she think Sidney wanted Isaiah to perform oral on him? Did she think this was okay? We can only gauge Joan by her actions, and her only one was to walk away. Sidney has no fight left in him, you can only imagine how many times he has tried to escape this situation but Isaiah has power over him, the ass grabbing scene was more than enough evidence that Sidney can't fight him back. Many of you are probably saying, "Well why doesn't he just kill him? Why doesn't he just fight him and make a scene?", take a minute and realize that this is what sexual abuse victims constantly go through. They feel that there is no out when the person raping them is their family, someone close to them on this level. For a sexual abuse victim, there is no safe place as long as their attacker is there.
-Isaiah's Persistence and Sidney's Fear-
We see them interact beyond the wedding and needless to say things between the three are awkward. Joan and Isaiah act normally towards each other. However, Sidney and Isaiah are very strained and Sid hardly communicates in full sentences. Have you ever seen an abusive relationship in front of you? Look at the tone that Isaiah has towards Sidney, it is a weird sense of authority as if he's talking to a child or his inferior partner that he still "loves". Even when trying to push alcohol that he got as a gift for his dad, Sidney constantly says no and Joan steps in offering to take one only for Isaiah to tell her they are his dads and she needs to ask him first. Hold up. Isaiah is wearing the pants on both fronts. Sidney too fearful to tell fight his son, and Joan too willing to live in ignorance and allow him to take control. We can safely assess that Isaiah has become a full blown monster trying to assert his dominance at every turn. At one point Joan even tries to reach out to Sidney to comfort him and they hold hands as if to silently say everything will be okay, and Isaiah in another bid to retain control tries to play footsies with his father.
We see Sidney's feeling for remorse over the events, even though he is not the one at fault, he is our victim, and yet his manuscript tells a tale of a man who feels regret over not ending this or doing something about it sooner. On some level, Sidney blames himself for what Isaiah has done to him a common trait among rape victims. However everything he does is mired in fear and caution, even leaving a manuscript in Joan's room, was turned into a moment of terror as soon as Isaiah appeared. It led to a confrontation between the two that shows how much control Isaiah has over his father. Sidney instantly offered apologies, feeling he's wrong for being honest and trying to tell someone, and Isaiah playing the role of the attacker to a tee, making threats against Sidney's defiance.
The Breaking Point or Just Another Day?
The film transitions to the New Years party where Isaiah is overdoing how much sexual attention he gives his wife. His kissing and groping are overly aggressive and he stares at Sidney for half of his over the top make out session. His act of sexual aggression is followed by him breaking glass in order to make a statement that he will stay and help "clean". His wife unsure concedes to him staying while she goes home, and this decision leads to one of, if not the most polarizing scene in this film.
Sidney relaxes in his bathtub, listening to a self-help audio tape. He is comforted by the peace in his comfort zone, but it will not last. Isaiah displays his truest colors as an aggressor, a bully, and a rapist. He tries to open the door but is confronted by the fact it is locked. He tries to turn the knob calling for Sidney. However he is met by no response, so he tugs on it forcefully stating "You know how I feel about locked doors" in an effort to push his authority onto his father. However once again he is met by no response as Sidney is immersed in his audio tape. So he resorts to force and kicks the door repeatedly until he kicks it off the frame. Sidney has barely any time to react, and this is where the film cuts away to Joan who is watching TV in the other room.
Joan looks out of it, as if preparing herself for what's about to come next, we can hear Sidney scream his lungs out "Stop" "No" "Please Stop". You might be thinking, there's no way she can't hear this right? She hears what's going on right? The answer is yes, Joan knows exactly what is going on but she herself out of willful ignorance decides to do nothing about it. In fact, instead of confronting this dark act, she simply complies with it and turns up the volume on her TV as loud as it will go. She even glances over at the wall but turns back to the screen trying to muster a smile. This is probably the saddest act of the movie, while Sidney is being attacked once more, his own wife won't even support him. She cowers not at Isaiah's authority but the truth she will have to face if she busts in on it. Joan is every coward whoever stood by while their loved ones were being raped and allowed it to happen. She is as much of the problem as Isaiah is. As Isaiah leaves the tub soaking wet, he tells Sidney to put that in his book. This cements that this attack was not out of love, it was not out of passion, probably not even sexual desire, instead, this was an act of "punishing" those who defy you and asserting a twisted dominance, have we not seen it all?
-When it all Falls Down-
The next morning we see Sidney take a hidden memoir and try to leave. In a way, this is Sidney fighting back against his son. However, Isaiah knows that he can't leave because the damage he caused last night may push his father over the edge to reveal the dirty secret. Whether his "speech" was out of meticulous planning or on the spot emotions, Isiah takes up a stance to try and convince Sidney he's wrong. Isaiah goes from insulting his father to trying to apologize, but when that wasn't receptive he tries another tactic. He tries to play the victim, claiming he's alone here and that Sidney is making him (Isaiah) out to be an abusive monster while he's a sad helpless victim. Isaiah's word choice always tends to be a mix of authoritative questioning and insulting, It's yet another attempt to assert control, by breaking down your victim while putting yourself above them.
See Isaiah is trying to shift the blame to make it seem like Sidney wanted this and caused this, all while shouting everything that's "wrong" with his life. At the end of it all, he tries to plead with Sidney claiming that he's not only his father, but he's also his best friend and that they can agree it's a beautiful thing and to not pervert the relationship. Isaiah's role as the abuser is so pivotal in this moment; it displays everything that abusers try to do to keep control on their victim when they feel it slipping away. His desperate attempt at reasoning falls on deaf ears and Sidney runs away.
However, there seems to be no good ending for Sidney as he is run down by a van. Isaiah is overcome with grief by his death but is it truly grief over losing his "best friend" or grief over losing his victim. With Sidney gone Joan has close to nothing, and she decides now is the time to confront Isaiah. While it may be too late to do anything for the husband she decides for herself that she needs to get it out there. In a way, her attempt at finding the truth is a sickening display of selfish regret. Joan questions him when it happened, noting that on Prom Night Sidney came back home and locked himself in the bathroom crying all night. She suspected something happened but didn't know, she even admits to realizing it must have started happening sooner than that. I personally wager that Joan did this for some type of closure on the destruction that her flesh and blood has caused.
Joan finally has enough and she calls Isaiah out for what he is. Of course, the monster could not take that lying down so he tries to assert the control he has always been so used to having, but is met with resistance. Joan, unlike Sidney, has not been truly abused by Isaiah so she musters every ounce of strength to fight him back. She slaps him, only to be slapped back and for Isaiah to say that "I loved him better than you ever did". They fight back and forth until Joan gains the upper hand stabbing him repeatedly with a fireplace poker. Joan hysterical wails at the fact that she has now lost her husband and her son, and that she had to finally face the realization of her family's darkest secret.
So what do we do now viewer? Do we sympathize with Joan's pain, do we reflect on what her feelings or mindset may be after this event? Do we hail her as the unforeseen hero? If you're thinking anything remotely similar to these examples then I'd like to halt you completely because Joan is not a woman taking back control from a monster, or a wife seeking vengeance/justice for her husband. No Joan is sick in a different way. See in the final scenes of the film, we abruptly cut from Joan crying to Sidney's memoir being thrown in the fire. The only person left alive is Joan, and Isaiah was looking at the memoir beforehand. It is obvious she throws it into the flames. Why would she do that? There is one very likely answer, Joan now fully confronting the situation realizes that she doesn't want this secret getting out, even though she has to explain her son's death now; she would rather deal with that monstrosity, than the fact that her son has been sexually abusing his father, her husband, for the past decade and she was complacent in the crime.