If you’ve ever watched a scary movie or watched Scary Movie, you might be pretty familiar with the tropes of “the final girl” and “death by sex” that dominate these films. These misogynistic tropes were crucial to ever-popular slasher films of the ‘70s and ‘80s that defined the genre, but they continue into the modern-day. However, in a genre known for its misogyny and poor portrayals of women, filmmaker Ari Aster has set out to change the way women are depicted in horror movies. With critically acclaimed hits Hereditary and Midsommar, which both feature complex female leads, Aster’s style and direction is a breath of fresh air for the genre.
With only two films under his belt, Ari Aster has already made a name for himself as a filmmaker. Hereditary and Midsommar have both been critically acclaimed. On Rotten Tomatoes, the films hold a rating of 89% and 83% fresh, respectively. Both films have also made waves on social media for their striking content and exceptional performances from their female leads. Perhaps most notably, both films were snubbed in nearly every category by the Oscars. Twitter even took up arms against the Academy in defense of leads Toni Collete and Florence Pugh to combat the continuing trend of women in the film industry going unrecognized.
With all that said, it is the direction, scripts, and stylistic sensibilities of Ari Aster that draw forth these compelling performances and plots. A 2010 graduate from the American Film Institute, Aster has been praised for his meticulous cinematography and eye for detail.
In Hereditary, Aster explores female grief through Toni Collete’s Annie, the mother of a family falling prey to demonic forces. Annie’s grief is explosive and violent, shifting dangerously from rage to guilt. However, Aster never portrays Annie as a screaming, hysteric mess in the way that other directors have shaped their female characters and been criticized for doing so.
Aster’s sophomore film, Midsommar, starring Florence Pugh, a Badass Woman to look out for in 2020, is a brightly-colored counterpart to Hereditary and has been heralded by some as “the best break-up movie”, but it is still just as gritty and unsettling as Aster’s first film. Through Florence Pugh’s Dani, Aster reveals the toxic aspects of a relationship and the lengths women must go to in order to maintain a socially appropriate appearance. Dani’s grief is quiet and, while criticized by the other characters, Aster’s directing never treats it as anything less than significant.
Aster’s films are truly cinematic masterpieces, but what truly makes him worthy of induction into the annals of our Badass Men is his ability to portray female grief and trauma as something other than overwrought and cliched. When asked why she took a role so starkly different from previous ones, Toni Collete said, “[Aster] has an understanding of what it is to be human.”
This is crucial when considering that horror movies have traditionally treated women as anything but human. Often, horror demonizes women by shoving them into categories that demean and belittle them. Aster chooses instead to treat the women of his films as characters and people with all the nuance and complexity that comes with being human.
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