Spoilers Ahead For Hereditary, Midsommar, and Beau Is Afraid are below.
Having viewed all three of writer/director Ari Aster’s feature films, I’ve concluded that the guy loves a depressing ending. Not just a simple, sad ending where it feels like all is lost – some of them have an uncomfortable celebratory vibe. For example, at the end of 2018’s Hereditary, everything that could go wrong for the Graham family does. The son, Peter, jumps out of the window to his death after he watches his possessed mother decapitate herself with a piano wire.
It is then that the evil demon spirit of Paemon inhabits Peter’s body after being progressively worn down for the entirety of Hereditary. Within the tree house that the coordination of the coven goes into, it’s a sensory overload of horrors – decapitated bodies kneeling to Peter’s deceased sister’s Charlie’s severed head and a bunch of creepy naked people chanting in excitement. Yes, this should make you feel weird (I sure did). That’s when composer Colin Stenson’s ‘Reborn’ score kicks in. It sounds celebratory and regal - a song fitting to coronate when something good happens. But things are indeed horrible.
When I watched 2019’s Midsommar, I noticed Aster used this ending style to question the morality of what we are witnessing. Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian’s (Jack Reynor) relationship was undoubtedly on the rocks before they even took the trip to Sweden. Tensions and events in the village only exacerbate how badly this relationship needed to run its course. The ending sequence is again bookmarked by a beautifully orchestrated score named ‘Fire Temple’ by Bobby Krlic. People are being sacrificed by being burned alive in a huge wooden temple. Two men are told to take a drug and wouldn’t feel pain (that was a lie).
Then, there’s Christian in a bear suit, unable to move and deemed a fate that might seem harsh. Was he an awful boyfriend? Absolutely. Without a doubt. A flawed human being, indeed. Did he deserve to die? Eh, I don’t know. Suddenly, Krlic’s score takes a disorienting turn as the Harga mimics the screams of the people in the temple. However, it elevates again when we witness Dani’s smile as she entirely loses her sanity to madness. Sure, she gets a family as the new May Queen and some retribution, but at what cost?
With Beau Is Afraid, things are a little more straightforward, even as the finale seems to be a vast fantasy conjunction of fears and anxieties. When it looks like Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) is in the clear for the first time in his life, he enters an auditorium to stand trial for all of his “wrongdoings.” His mother has found a way to curate the ultimate guilt trip into a terrifying experience for him. As Beau begs and pleads, the onlookers don’t help and stare on. He is utterly alone in a room of people and betrayed by the one person he’s tethered to. When Beau combusts, everybody gets up and leaves as the credits roll.
There are other themes present within Aster’s narratives – various forms of toxic relationships and how they affect people, mother/child dynamics, grief, and extreme cases of what mental health breakdowns look like. Even more interesting is how there are various degrees to which unhappy endings occur. In many horror films, in most cases, somebody beats the bad guy, and there’s some semblance of relief. But not for Aster. For now, he would instead take the audience to various worlds where the boogeyman does win.