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Ari Aster is one of modern cinema’s most intriguing filmmakers. Known for his meticulously detailed and rather disturbing movies, Aster captured the world’s attention in 2018 with the horror film Hereditary. He followed up with Midsommar in 2019, but it would be nearly four years before his third feature film, Beau is Afraid (2023). Beau is Afraid is Aster’s most ambitious project yet, and it may be the movie that best represents the entirety of the tones present in his short films.
This article takes a look at Ari Aster’s entire body of work, from his major motion pictures to his short films created before he became known as a well-respected auteur.
Ari Aster’s Movies
Hereditary is Ari Aster’s first feature-length movie, and it is arguably the best horror movie of the 2010s. Starring Toni Collette in a role that should’ve earned her an Oscar nomination, Hereditary is a horrific family drama by way of a possession movie. Annie Graham (Collette) is a wife and a mother of two. After Annie’s own mother dies, her life begins to fall apart as secret feelings rise to the surface, and as a supernatural force invades the Graham family.
Hereditary exemplifies Ari Aster’s meticulous attention to detail. Nearly every frame is packed with information that add layers of depth to the story and atmosphere. Aster’s fascination with family dynamics is on full display in Hereditary. The film is so well crafted that, even though it is ultimately a movie about possession, it leaves viewers to wonder how much of the family’s inner conflict came from demonic influence, and how much rose naturally from each family member’s hidden grief and resentment.
Ari Aster’s Midsommar came out just over a year after Hereditary, and it solidified the filmmaker’s place as one of modern cinema’s most interesting new voices. As with many of his stories, Midsommar contains family tragedy as a driving element before focusing on the deteriorating romantic relationship between Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor). Jack is ready to break up with Dani, but Dani needs support after a particularly heartbreaking group of deaths in her family. A trip to a Swedish commune for a rare midsummer festival stretches their already broken relationship to outlandish extremes.
While Hereditary is dark and foreboding, Midsommar is bright and, in its own way, freeing. The two movies feel like companion pieces, one mirroring the other in many ways. Aster’s tendency to show the audience clues about what’s going to happen well before it occurs is present in Midsommar, making the experience compelling even after multiple viewings.
Beau is Afraid is Ari Aster’s long-awaited third movie. Originally described as a “nightmare comedy,” the story for the film grew out of an idea Aster first put on screen in his short titled Beau. Beau is Afraid ties together just about all of the themes seen in his short films, including messed up family relationships, severe mother issues, incredibly dark humor, and lots penis-based comedy.
In Beau is Afraid, Joaquin Phoenix is Beau, a man riddled with guilt and anxiety thanks to the actions of his mother. Beau is planning to make his yearly visit to his mother’s house on the anniversary of his father’s death, but the comically violent world around Beau has other plans for him. Over the course of a few days, Beau goes on a series of improbable adventures as he tries to get to his mother’s house. The movie utilizes an unreal dream-logic to convey the feelings Beau is suffering through. Though it feels very different from his previous two movies, common themes tie them together in unmistakable ways.
Ari Aster’s Short Films
Prior to his full-length films, Ari Aster spent years honing is craft by making multiple short films. Some of his shorts show early forms of the themes and topics he incorporates into his features, and some show a side of Aster you’ve probably never seen before. The following shorts are each described briefly, with particular attention paid to how much of what we see in Aster’s work today we can see in his past films.
Herman’s Cure-All Tonic (2008)
Ari Aster directed Herman’s Cure-All Tonic while attending the American Film Institute. Of all the films listed in this article, Herman’s Cure-All Tonic is the only one Aster didn’t write. The script was written by Aster’s AFI classmate Anayat Fakhraie. The story is about a mild-mannered clerk at a pharmacy named Harold (Guy Perry) who also takes care of his slovenly father Herman. One day Harold discovers a disgusting new way to create his store’s signature health tonic, and it proves to be a mood-altering hit with a particularly rude regular customer. Even though Aster didn’t write it, the way the short is directed shows his penchant for dark humor and meaningful visuals.
The Strange Thing About the Johnsons (2011)
Written and directed by Ari Aster as his thesis film for the American Film Institute, The Strange Thing About the Johnsons explores a troubling family secret. The short focuses on the incestuous relationship between a father, Sidney (Billy Mayo), and son, Isaiah (Brandon Greenhouse), but the dynamics of that relationship aren’t what you might expect. The short leaked online in 2011, and it went viral thanks to its controversial premise.
Though the subject matter is taboo, the way Ari Aster subverts the audiences expectations about how they assume the story might play out makes it incredibly engaging. Aster also pushes the drama so far that it has an unreal quality to it, making the film come across as a very dark satire. Most prominently, the film shows Aster’s interest in telling stories about family tragedies. Also, a tense scene at a dinner table revolving around family secrets may show that Aster was already toying with an idea that came through magnificently in Hereditary.
TDF Really Works (2011)
TDF Really Works is a two-and-a-half minute penis joke made as parody of infomercials. Ari Aster wrote and directed this goofy short that feels like it was made as a gag among friends. The main thing to take away from this is that even TDF Really Works has a dark sense of humor which is more or less in line with all of his short films up to this point, though it is much more prominent here.
Billy Mayo stars as the titular Beau in this short film about paranoia. Beau is planning to take a trip to visit his mother, but various encounters make Beau believe someone is out to get him. Beau becomes increasingly paranoid as people start acting absurdly aggressive towards him. The finale is an odd one, raising more questions than answers.
Ari Aster doesn’t consider Beau is Afraid as a remake of Beau, but he doesn’t deny that some of the ideas he came up with in Beau grew and changed into what Beau is Afraid became. Many moments early in Beau is Afraid are also seen in Beau, including Beau trying to visit his mother, Beau losing his apartment keys after going back inside to get dental floss, and a man (played by Aster in the short) telling Beau “you’re fucked” in his apartment hallway.
Munchausen once again is an example of Ari Aster focusing on messed-up relationships within a family. The short film stars Bonnie Bedelia as an overbearing mother who is dangerously attached to her son (played by Liam Aiken). After enduring the heartbreak of being separated from her son when he goes away to college, the mother realizes she will lose him forever after he proposes to his girlfriend. The mother then takes drastic action to keep her son at home… an action that has dire consequences.
Munchausen has no dialogue and is presented with only music to accompany the action. It begins in a very positive way, but even then hints of darkness flash across the mother’s face. By the end, the mother/son relationship in Munchausen feels like a mirrored opposite of the relationship between Annie and Peter in Hereditary. However, the relationships in both films end horribly.
Basically is about an actress in Hollywood who introduces us to herself and her life. Shot almost exclusively in a series of stationary wide shots, Shandy (Rachel Brosnahan) talks about everything from how much she loathes her former-actress mother to her lack of belief in God. Once again Aster’s motif of fractured family relationships pops up, but the bigger point in Basically is satirizing a stereotypically vapid movie-star lifestyle while still providing the character with a tiny amount of self-reflection.
The Turtle’s Head (2014)
Richard Riehle stars as Detective Bing Shooster in The Turtle’s Head. The short film begins as a parody of a hard-boiled detective crime thriller. Shooster narrates his dealings with a woman hiring him for a job, though Shooster is more concerned with getting into bed with women than with solving crimes. After a while, The Turtle’s Head stops being a comical homage to film noir and becomes an extended joke about Shooster’s ever-shrinking penis. Once again, like in TDF Really Works, the goofy side of Aster’s humor is front and center.
C’est la Vie (2016)
C’est la Vie is a companion piece to Basicallly. The two shorts are shot and edited in the same way, presenting one main character speaking to the audience in a series of different locations. This time we are introduced to Chester Crummings (Bradley Fisher), a homeless man in a big city. Crummings is angry about a lot of things, and he lets us know about all of it in a diatribe that feels like a man justifiably angry at a world that kept pushing him down. As he speaks, his actions often contradict his self-righteousness, though the film ends on a more ambiguous note when we learn more about Chester’s past.
Who is Ari Aster? – A Brief Biography
Ari Aster is known for horror thanks to his first two movies, but he doesn’t consider himself a horror director. In fact, he’s said that he initially tried to stay away from horror despite being obsessed with the horror genre while growing up. There is darkness in nearly all of Aster’s work though, so breaking into film through horror was an inevitability.
Ari Aster was born in 1986 to a family of artists (his father is a musician and his mother is a poet). Aster’s relationship with his parents is “amazing” which may come as a surprise to anyone who’s seen the messed-up family dynamics in his films. Aster spoke about unspecified suffering in his family in an interview with Vox, and that, plus the artistic freedom given to him by his parents, inspired Aster to focus much of his early creative output on families dealing with secrets and pain.
Before deciding to become a director, Ari Aster was a writer. Speaking to The Verge, Aster says he could never figure out how to get people together for the cooperation needed to make a movie while growing up, so he just wrote screenplays instead. As he got older and started thinking about a career in film, he realized it would be difficult to hand over creative control of his stories to someone else to direct. So, when he went off to college, he began directing in addition to writing.
Aster earned a Bachelor’s Degree in film at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. After graduating from Santa Fe, Aster moved on to the AFI Conservatory where he earned his Master’s Degree in directing in 2010. His thesis film at the American Film Institute was the controversial short The Strange Thing About the Johnsons. The short film garnered Aster some notoriety when it leaked online and people reacted to its disturbing premise. It also showed Aster’s confidence in his filmmaking, and in his ability to get strong reactions from viewers.
After graduating, Ari Aster continued to experiment with various short films over the next few years. The shorts range from broad comedy to melodrama to thriller, and they all carry a thread of extremely dark humor. It was perhaps Aster’s unique view of the world that gained the attention of A24. Backed by A24, Aster wrote and directed his first feature film Hereditary, and its release in 2018 was met with critical praise and strong reactions from film fans.
Back in 2018, Aster said he had “10 screenplays I hope to direct, and they’re all rooted in different genres.” Adding in the two movies that followed Hereditary, that could mean he still has at least eight more movies he wants to make. We can’t wait to see them all.
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More Articles About Ari Aster’s Movies
- The Most Disturbing Scene in Hereditary
- Facts About the Movie Midsommar
- Beau is Afraid Explained: Thank You, I’m Sorry