Beau should not sleep. Earlier in the day, when he tried to leave his apartment to see his mother, Beau left his door open with the keys still in the lock. When he returned to the door after turning back to retrieve a forgotten item, his keys were gone.

Worse, when Beau asks a man in the hallway about the missing keys, the passerby shouts, “You’re fucked, pal!”

Yes, the above scene does occur in Beau is Afraid, last year’s weirdo epic starring Joaquin Phoenix as the titular disturbed man. But before he made Beau is Afraid as his third feature film, director Ari Aster introduced Billy Mayo as the fearful lead of his short movie, “Beau.”

Although Beau is Afraid benefits from a much larger budget and A-list stars, including Patti LuPone as Beau’s famous mother and Parker Posey as his childhood love, and although it features delirious set pieces and multiple locations, the nearly three-hour movie arrives at a relatively trite point: mothers put a lot of pressure on their sons.

Clocking in at just over six minutes, 2011’s “Beau” doesn’t have time for the set pieces of its feature counter-part. There’s no one-shot following Beau as he crosses a terrifying New York City street, no forest theater performance, nothing with Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane playing conservative Middle Americans.

But “Beau” does have something lacking in Beau is Afraid: a palpable sense of terror, an immediacy not diluted by the longer film’s histrionics. Such is the case with most of Aster’s short movies, films that have all of the precise camera movements and meticulous composition of his features. But their limited run-time prevents Aster from overburdening the point, making them all the more upsetting.

Horror in the Humor

What’s striking about Ari Aster’s short films is how comedic and openly crass they are. They most clearly recall the short works of David Lynch, which combine Americana kitsch with the absurd which, when combined with meticulous shot composition and sound mixing, create something horrifying.

Take Aster’s second short film, “TDF Really Works” from 2011. The two-minute film is a faux-commercial for a product called Tino’s Dick Fart, which helps users pass explosive gas from their member. At times, “TDF Really Works” feels like a lost bit from Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! or I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson, complete with cheesy video effects, over-the-top acting, and, you know, a focus on naughty parts.

However, Aster isn’t content to stay broad, and instead adds upsetting elements, such as incoherent noises under a pleasing soundtrack or animated images of the titular pump being inserted into a man’s urethra. Insert shots feature close-ups on the face of a man using the TDF, forcing us to watch the pain and humiliation twist his features. What started as a lowbrow joke soon becomes a stomach-churning exercise in despair.

Lest one dismiss “TDF Really Works” as the immature art of an immature filmmaker, Aster repeats the approach three years later in “The Turtle’s Head,” which has a much higher budget and production value. The twelve minute short features recognizable actors, including character actor Richard Riehle (Office Space, Casino) as old-timey private eye Bing Shooster and Jim O’Heir (Parks and Recreation, Logan Lucky) as his physician.

Much of “The Turtle’s Head” plays as a broad parody of film noir, with Riehle’s Shooster narrating his exploits, focusing more on his sexual interest in a woman (Jennifer Christophe) who contacts him than he does the facts of her missing husband. However, what begins as an obvious joke about untethered male ego soon veers into body horror when Shooster discovers that his penis is shrinking.

Again, this could just be a big dumb joke about a guy who thinks too much about his genitals. But the sound design and shot selection in “The Turtle’s Head” asks us to feel sympathy for this ridiculous man’s situation. Light falls gently on Shooster’s face as he’s on the verge of tears as he loses control of himself. When Shooster nearly mutilates himself trying to reverse the situation, complete with close-ups on the receding member, “The Turtle’s Head” becomes fully horrifying.

When presented with Aster’s cold, precise filmmaking style, the humor of “The Turtle’s Head” and “TDF Really Works” not only becomes disturbing, it also elevates its point about the fragility of the male ego or the effects of capitalist media. Neither film fully explores those premises, but unlike Beau is Afraid, they do not belabor the surface levels of the point.

The Strange Thing About Ari Aster’s Strangest Film

In his first two features, Aster benefited from a plot-heavy second half in Hereditary to add to the theme of familial trauma, and Midsommar leaned into the surreal to avoid coalescing into a single theme.

Beau is Afraid returns to the same thematic territory as Hereditary, without such a strict plot. As a result, the movie feels thin and obvious after the weird vibes become monotonous an hour in.

Many of Aster’s short movies feature strange, damaging families, presented in odd ways. The 16-minute silent short “Munchausen” stars Bonnie Bedelia (Die Hard) as a mother who considers poisoning her son (Liam Aiken) to keep him from going to college. In “Basically,” Rachel Brosnahan (Superman: Legacy) monologues to the camera about her privileged family, completely unaware of her shallowness, or of the service workers in the corners of the frame.

Again, neither of these films make huge points. But because they come in at under twenty-minutes, the presentation and the surreality make the ideas feel more direct. Aster maintains that sense of control in his longest and most infamous short film, 2011’s “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons.”

“The Strange Thing About the Johnsons” begins with what appears like a moment of wholesome familial support. When father Sidney (Billy Mayo) walks in on his adolescent son Isaiah (Carlon Jeffery) masturbating, he apologizes and leaves. He returns shortly after to explain to Isaiah that there’s no shame in what he was doing, and that he deserves to have his boundaries respected. Only after Sidney leaves does the camera reveal the subject of Isaac’s fantasies, a picture of his shirtless father at the beach.

When the movie cuts to Isaiah’s (now played by Brandon Greenhouse) wedding reception fourteen years later, the camera pans from Sidney’s stricken face to Isaiah’s hand, which slides down his father’s back to grip his butt. Isaiah has been molesting his father for years, bullying the older man every time that he’s tried to reveal the truth.

Aster plays the story straight, heightening the horror elements, as when Isiah’s mother Joan (Angela Bullock) witnesses her son fondling her husband. When Sidney, a poet, reveals all in a manuscript titled Cocoon Man, the camera takes his POV as Isaiah climbs the stairs to confront him, capturing the young man’s heavy footsteps and looming shadow.

This certainly has the structure of a joke, underscoring the unusual nature of a younger person occupying a role often associated with the older person. In other cases, it would be funny for a younger man to treat his father like a child. But when Isaiah breaks into the bathroom where his father soaks — shouting, “You know how I feel about locked doors!” — it’s impossible to laugh. It’s impossible to laugh when, late in the film, Isaiah implicates Sidney in the actions, charging his father with lying and cowardice for not admitting his part in what they did.

Even at 29 minutes long, “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons” never repeats ideas. Instead, it revisits the nature of Isaiah’s attacks on Sidney, which keeps the short from forming a clear theme or tone. Is it supposed to be funny? Is it supposed to be scary? Is it saying that families are inherently evil?

Because it only has 29 minutes to explore the issue from multiple angles, “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons” comes to no answer, becoming all the more upsetting in the process.

Confusion Scares More Than Clarity

Although it doesn’t rely as heavily on family dynamics, Midsommar uses an approach similar to “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons.” Dani’s (Florence Pugh) indoctrination into a Swedish cult avoids a straightforward theme, to the point that people still disagree on the meaning of her smile at the end of the film. Furthermore, Midsommar includes moments of crass humor, most often involving Will Poulter’s bro Mark, but the offense and violence they cause do not lend themselves to easy jokes.

Midsommar remains Aster’s masterpiece. But outside of that film, Aster’s best work is in his short films, movies that use their short runtime for maximum disturbing effect.

The post Forget Hereditary, Ari Aster’s Short Films Are His Most Disturbing Movies appeared first on Den of Geek.

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