“Why are you afraid of me?”
Hereditary isn’t like most modern horror flicks. We’ve gotten to a point where the genre depends on gaslighting our primitive reactions to sight and sound; Lights Out and Don’t Breathe are both excellent examples of this trend towards overwhelming sensory stimulation, with this year’s A Quiet Place being the crown jewel of that kind of white-knuckled cinematic experience. Hereditary doesn’t scare us in the same way though. Here, an inherited illness bubbles and festers in the pits of our stomachs, and this twisted family drama – so delicately and dourly drenched in dread – has the audacity to stick its finger down our throats, coercing a visceral and physically purgative upheaval. It’s a movie that requires you to think, to ponder, to process and to endure, and it’s a masterful depiction of grief’s stranglehold.
The first thing we see on-screen is an ominous, foreboding obituary. It’s for Annie’s (Toni Collette) estranged late mother Ellen, a secretive woman she loved but hardly knew. Strange and unfamiliar faces fill her funeral. At this early point in the film, everything feels just left or right of center, so off and awkward, so grating and disturbingly calm. And then things intensify. And then they puzzle. And then they mystify. I’m not sure how audiences will react to Hereditary; three people in my crowd wouldn’t stop laughing, and while it garnered my first ever “shhhhhh” to another group of moviegoers (call me uptight, but they made being rude seem effortless), I can’t help but think that they used their uncomfortable laughter as a defense mechanism against the film’s tirelessly troubling imagery. In this respect, Hereditary looms and leads and lurks, and it showcases the vendetta we’re able to hold against a manipulative world that ever so often rejects our collective sense of humanity. That’s a lot to take in and the story never tries to make it easier to digest.
Life for the the Graham family looks like a Baroque painting made minimalist and modern. Steve (Gabriel Byrne) plays dad and referee for his wife Annie (Collette is so brilliant here as a miniature artist; that profession is key…she recreates models of her tragedy, turning them into exhibits. Don’t we all do that in a way? To gain sympathy or simply as expression?) She often bickers with their two children, the suspicious and scared Peter (Alex Wolff) and the troubled young Charlie (Milly Shapiro). There’s a constant sense of tension and unease coursing through their interactions from the onset. Take a glance at the photo above; there’s no engagement, no love, no connection between their eyes. Hereditary might initially feel overlong in its conspicuous setup, but the film toys with our expectations and our imaginations, simmering a pot of ingredients together before it all comes to a bursting boil. Like a volcano, the film builds slowly and unexpectedly, and what erupts from its soul only comes to an impasse when it’s gone as far as it deems necessary. For Hereditary, that limit is farther and stranger than you could possibly imagine.
Hereditary is a film about the things we do as much as it is the things we don’t, about the people inhabiting the foreground as well as those faceless bodies filling the background, and about the fake feelings we wear in order to cloak despair. In this movie, lady justice’s arms remain even, and what seems futile eventually becomes fundamentally important. I’ll admit that I came out of this movie a bit underwhelmed. It’s scary as all get out, but what’s so ingrained in its theme of grief comes across even clearer when you study the film in your mind. You come to realize that tragedy and hopelessness can go overlooked – that they are the seeds of inaction, that they fill the emptiness around us, that they’re stifled inside all of us – and the genius of Hereditary isn’t in its pessimism, but rather in the story’s profound ability to convey the construction of unavoidable, inescapable, intense personal anguish.
The author Janne Teller once wrote, “From the moment we are born, we begin to die.” This realization is extremely dark, and writer/director Ari Aster has crafted a stunning debut feature that operates on such a harsh ideology. Hereditary shows us quizzical details and it sporadically allows spoken work to illuminate the point of it all, but most importantly, the film allows its actors to confront audiences through the camera, asking us to read the scene through the expressions of those on-screen. As a girl in Peter’s classroom so aptly says during literary discussion, “They’re all like pawns in this terrible, hopeless machine.” The Grahams represent the pawns in Hereditary, and yet I can’t help but believe that this film – so manipulative and dispiriting – speaks to the staggering forces of nature. That we can end up as the pawns in our lives. That some people and some things are simply doomed from the start by no doing of their own. Thankfully Hereditary – a modern horror masterpiece – elegantly fabricates its fear without completely succumbing to the sheer horror of existence, although it does come close.
“I need you to be open.”
Rating: 5 out of 5