Personal Purgatory: Why I Love the Films of Ari Aster
Warning: Some spoilers ahead!
No other rising filmmaker from the past decade has impressed me quite as much as Ari Aster. His three features- Hereditary (2018), Midsommar (2019), and Beau is Afraid (2023)- have disturbed and unsettled me more than most horror pictures I see. But what gives them such staying power is easily how personal they are. By taking his own demons and filtering them through a genre movie lens, Aster is able to craft extreme experiences that touch on something deep and true.
What's Hereditary All About?
Hereditary follows the Graham family, as they deal with the recent loss of their matriarch. Subsequently, they are plagued by a series of increasingly unnerving occurrences that lead to shocking secrets about their heritage. Eventually it's revealed that the cause of the Grahams' suffering is a demon named Paimon, and his frighteningly loyal cult, who want a new host for their master.
However exaggerated, Hereditary smartly positioned itself as more of a meditation on mental illness, trauma, and the utter hell of inheriting such things from our family members. Having struggled with severe depression for years as a teen, it often felt as if some evil being was operating from above, toying with me to see what would finally bring me down. Hereditary made that quite literal, and by crossing that with elements of the supernatural, as well as a poignant family drama (I still think Toni Collette was robbed of an Oscar nod for her outstanding lead performance), it was all the more powerful and scary. When I found out through interviews that Aster based the story on his family's own traumatic experiences, that left me thinking, someone else knows what this feels like. It was a truly cathartic experience.
But What About Midsommar?
Oh, but Hereditary was just a warm-up to the sheer weirdness that would be Aster's sophomore feature, Midsommar (2019). This one was born out of his need to write a breakup movie after the end of his own long-term relationship. Once a Swedish production company who'd loved that debut film contacted him to see about doing a Swedish folk-horror picture, Aster saw an opportunity, combined both genres, and so resulted this total acid trip of a journey.
The story centered around a damaged young woman named Dani (Florence Pugh), who lost her entire family at the same time she'd come to question her relationship with boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). When a mutual friend named Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) invites them and their cohorts to his native commune in Halsingland, our hapless protagonists find themselves embroiled in a series of increasingly bizarre Midsummer rituals that reveal a hidden agenda.
I can't speak to the pain of losing your entire family, nor have I ever been in a relationship, let alone one as rocky as Dani and Christian's. But what struck me so much about this movie, just like with Hereditary, was just how personal it was. While Midsommar was often compared to 1973's The Wicker Man, often considered the high bar of folk horror, the film felt totally one-of-a-kind, and all because Aster put so much of his own experience into the central couple and their conflict. Even as absurd as the Swedish rituals got, he was always squarely focused on how each event impacted Dani and her journey. This spoke to both the confidence of his direction, the astute craftsmanship on display, as well as his depiction of this cult's sneaky tactics. After seeing it twice at the cinema in 2019, I was not only deeply bothered by what I'd witnessed, but oddly moved by the vulnerability of it all. It quickly became my favorite movie of that year, and both it and Hereditary rank amongst my favorite films to this day.
And Let's Not Forget About Beau is Afraid... Oh Boy
Now this one is easily the craziest film I've seen in 2023. I will also say that it's one of my favorite films of this year, and it is quite unforgettable.The premise followed an anxiety-ridden, middle-aged man named Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix) on an odyssey to visit his mother Mona (Patti LuPone). While there was a sort of emotional logic to the proceedings, Aster deliberately gave the film no literal logic to speak of (think Spirited Away, Perfect Blue, or Mulholland Dr.). Nevertheless, he created an absorbing and surreal exploration of mommy issues that pulled me in from frame one and carried me all through its three-hour runtime. With his typically painstaking attention to the tiniest details of every shot, the acting, and the bonkers sense of humor, Beau is Afraid was a film I found haunting and hysterically funny at the same time. After my friend and I saw it in theaters (and laughed our asses off), I wondered what unresolved issues Ari Aster must have had with his mom when he wrote the script.
Ultimately, what I admire about Ari Aster as a filmmaker is how emotionally honest he's willing to get with his work. He's able to take his painful memories, and exorcise them in a way that is easily accessible for genre fans. His work is exceptionally well-made, on top of that, which adds to the cumulative effect. Anytime a new Ari Aster picture is announced, you can bet on me buying a ticket to see it.