Director Deep Dive: the emotional terror of Ari Aster

By Ryan O’Shea

About thirty minutes into Ari Aster’s Hereditary, there’s a disorienting tonal shift. The steering-wheel is wrenched to one side as the film turns from a depiction of a dysfunctional family to one irrevocably tormented by grief. This shift from dysfunction to collapse is what characterises Aster’s filmography. His work is effective as he spends time developing his characters, hinting at their flaws early on. When the antagonistic forces appear, these weaknesses are exploited. The true horror is exposed within the relationships themselves. He uses the horror genre not as a vehicle for cheap scares, but as a means to explore human drama.

In his early short film, The Strange Thing About the Johnsons (2011), we see the beginning of Aster’s focus. It is an uncomfortable film about an equally uncomfortable topic: a son abusing his father. One scene of a mother peeping through a hole in a fence (later recycled to great effect in Midsommar) hints at the voyeuristic quality of his films. We are also peeping in at private lives, seeing hidden iniquities and horrors.

This lingering camera and the slow-burn of the plot render us helpless to the twists and the sudden cuts to grotesque close-ups.

Ryan O’Shea

This voyeuristic quality is developed further in his first feature film: Hereditary (2018). The matriarch, Annie Graham (played with great emotional dexterity by Toni Collette), is an artist who creates doll-house re-enactments of her life’s most private past events, such as the death of her mother. These houses become more perverse as the film progresses, recreating horrific scenes in miniature. The cinematography (supervised by Aster’s collaborator, Pawel Pogorzelski) is also crafted to make the scenes feel as though we are looking inside a doll’s house. The film begins with a zoom into a miniature which transforms into an actual room of the house. Often, scenes are shot as if one wall is open to our gaze, facing the camera in the same direction, rendering the fourth wall invisible. This invasiveness adds to the overall discomfort which the film masterfully evokes. The camera moves slowly and lingers; the film frequently has a subtle sound of throbbing in the background, and we feel the same sense of unease the family feels as everything begins to collapse. This lingering camera and the slow-burn of the plot render us helpless to the twists and the sudden cuts to grotesque close-ups.

These techniques all serve to bolster the core of the film: the ability of the family to cope with grief. While Annie becomes explosive with accusatory rage, her son Peter goes into silent shock and fear. It is their inability to reconcile their differing responses – and the flaws in the structure of their family – that lead to the horrors of the high-energy finale. The film changes pace yet again in the final act – the camera switches between lingering pans and sharp swerves, the sound design is grisly and unforgiving, and the hidden machinations of the plot are revealed. This is a film that requires a second viewing.

Whilst Hereditary felt claustrophobic, Midsommar is dizzyingly open: the camera often pans in full circles, revealing open spaces.

Ryan O’Shea

Aster continues to display his ability to break down relationships and reveal the complexities behind them in his most recent film: Midsommar (2019). He focuses on Dani (played by Florence Pugh) and her relationship with her boyfriend, Christian. Christian plans to break up with her but tragedy strikes, so he instead invites her to accompany him and his friends to a remote community in Sweden during the ‘midsommar’ festival. We see again Aster’s ability to deconstruct relationships to their emotional core, bringing his characters to the depths of both grief and ecstasy.

Whilst Hereditary felt claustrophobic, Midsommar is dizzyingly open: the camera often pans in full circles, revealing open spaces. The bright light of the sun and drug-induced effects create an atmosphere of over-exposure – Dani and Christian’s relationship is literally laid bare. The camera still lingers, yet often cuts back to disturbing, gory shots. While the film is both unsettling and horrifying (a classic Aster film), the ending is surprisingly affirming. If Hereditary is a film of emotional collapse, Midsommar is one of both collapse and renewal.

This ability to use the genre to interrogate emotional states while still staying fresh is truly what makes Aster an iconic director. The 21st century has seen a rise in the horror-film auteur, with directors as varied as Bong Joon-Ho, Robert Eggers, Lynne Ramsay, and Jordan Peele bringing their own individual styles and creative visions to revitalise the genre for the modern age. Ari Aster has surely earned a place among these happy few, and I am confident that he will continue to shock and entertain in his films to come.

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