* * * * ½
Hereditary (2018, Dir. Ari Aster) is a truly horrifying and disturbing movie experience. I do think I actually ran up the stairs to my bedroom the night after watching it. Not for the faint of heart, Hereditary is challenging in ways, and is not something I would recommend casually putting on for a fun scare. At the same time, it is not overdone or cruel to its audience; there is no fetishizing of torture or gore here. Genre fans may not fully embrace this, as it does go around, outside, above and beyond some conventional norms in terms of its tone and style. For better or worse, the experience of watching this movie is not one of easily digesting expected plot points. The characters on screen experience the terrifying events that befall them with such realism we can’t help but feel their emotion and often be overwhelmed by it. It really does get under your skin. Which may not sound like a fun night out at the movies. But it is so well done, so well acted and scripted, and so creatively shot that despite the emotional toll it takes, it deserves and commands our attention.
The story of Hereditary follows the Graham family – Annie (Toni Collette), the mother who is a miniature artist (i.e., she creates and paints miniature scenes for art galleries) enmeshed in a dark and tragic bloodline; Steve (Gabriel Byrne), the father who struggles mightily to keep everything afloat; Peter (Alex Wolff), the 16-year-old “every-teen” who enjoys a good blunt and spends his High School classes staring at girls; and Charlie (Milly Shapiro), the 13 year old daughter who is anything but your average teen. The family is indelibly marked by the recently deceased Ellen Leigh, Annie’s mother. We come to learn, gradually and with ever so many carefully placed hints, that Annie’s mother, the children’s grandmother, was for quite some time engaged in a kind of dark conjuring as the leader of a secret, satanic cult. The cult’s aim is ultimately to use Peter’s body as a vessel for Paimon, one of the Kings of Hell, and the God of Mischief. The story of the film details the ways in which the Graham family falls prey to Ellen Leigh’s evil influence, and how they ultimately succumb to this overpowering supernatural force.
The story is often effectively told through monologue in believable moments wherein Annie or her “friend” Joan (Ann Dowd), who we later discover is a key member of Ellen Leigh’s cult, deliver key pieces of plot exposition. In one of these scenes, we hear Annie share her family background at a grief group. She reveals that her side of the family is marked by numerous untimely deaths, apparently caused by severe mental illness. In another scene, a dream sequence, we see Annie tell her son that she wishes she had never had him, and that she felt forced to have him by her mother. This is one of many moments when Annie is shown to be volatile and dangerous during her sleeping state. We eventually learn that Annie has a history of sleep walking, and of performing involuntary acts which at times have threatened her children (i.e., pouring paint thinner over them and almost lighting them on fire). This leads to deep mistrust between Annie, her children and husband, a key dynamic that is critical to the later conflicts in the story. At the end of the film, in Joan’s monologue, we hear a neat summation of the story and an explanation for some of the more confounding elements on the screen. This kind of detailed exposition during the closing minutes of a film could easily come across as heavy-handed, but the writing and direction avoid this, instead leaving the audience with a sense of satisfying closure, however dark the ending may be.
The acting in the movie is exceptional and the well known heavyweights do more than live up to expectations. Both Byrne and Collette are near perfect as the couple in the family, and even though we’re dealing with some exaggerated / unrealistic content and stressors (i.e., demons inhabiting humans and taking over their lives), the dynamics within the marriage and relationship – issues of trust, balancing love for each other and love for children – all ring true. Byrne is the solid father, struggling mightily to keep a kind of balance and peace within an ever darkening and chaotic domestic space. His love for Annie and for his children is so believable, as is his gradual turning away from Annie, when her increasing hysteria begins to push the limits of credulity. Collette activates a wide array of emotions in this role, and it seems like it must have been quite exhausting for her to put on this performance. Her Annie is marked by a dark family past, and a secretive, manipulative mother intent on power and riches, even at the cost of her children and grandchildren’s lives. Annie struggles with conflicted emotions toward her own mother, feeling instinctual love for her that is largely overshadowed by deep distrust. Similarly, toward her children she feels a kind of resentment, feeling that their doubts and caution around her are unfounded; they should trust her unconditionally and be sure of her love. Wolff does a wonderful job as Peter, a seemingly basic teenager who finds himself the victim of unbelievable forces. Peter’s reactions to the horrors and tragedies that enter his life are often displayed in long close-ups, and Wolff fully rises to the challenge of this prolonged spotlight.
The score / soundtrack of the film is appropriately atmospheric and fits nicely within each scene. Familiar themes and motifs that are heard in the background early in the film eventually come to the fore as the film reaches its treacherously intense climactic moments. There is really creative use of music in a number of scenes; for example, in one scene when Annie is sleepwalking and tries to scream, the music acts as her voice, heightening the unreality and surrealism of the moment. At the end of the film, when we see Peter, now Paimon, crowned and surrounded by his worshippers, the music shifts dramatically in style and tone, properly marking this as new terrain and an ultimate climax.
Aster’s direction really stands out in a number of scenes, and on the whole this is strong work from a first-time director. During the opening scene, we experience a kind of optical illusion and are introduced to a key visual relationship that I’ll further geek out about below. In this scene, the camera slowly zooms into one of Annie’s miniatures, a bedroom scene, and we notice that the image on the screen gradually becomes the real bedroom in the actual house. The closing scene offers a kind of answer to this – we watch as Peter is crowned as Paimon in the tree house outside of the Graham home, and then the final shot shifts dramatically to a still image of a miniature representation of the tree house. We have come full circle, from unreality to unreality. In several scenes, the choice to stay on Peter’s reactions, in close up, rather than follow the action, is well played and ultimately delivers an impactful emotional punch. In one particular scene, the first really jarring moment in the film, Peter inadvertently kills his sister in a kind of car accident (you’ll have to watch to see what I mean). After this happens, Peter, who is now basically rendered a zombie by shock, continues driving home, and once there, goes right up to his room to bed, leaving his sister’s body in the car. He does not tell either of his parents about what has just happened. The next morning, the camera stays on Peter’s face, in close up, as we hear his mother discover the body in the car, and then hear her ear-curdling reaction to the gruesome sight. This is such an effective way of not only getting the audience more in tune with Peter and his deteriorating mental state, but also of forcing us to come to terms with the full emotional weight of these insanely intense moments.
The greatest stylistic / visual accomplishment of the film is its clever framing and composition, and how this is informed by Annie’s miniature creations. Throughout the film, we see Annie creating and painting miniature scenes, resembling little doll house rooms. These are scenes from her own life (e.g., a scene of her mother in hospice, or the scene of the funeral home where her mother’s wake was held). For Annie, the miniatures are her profession, but they are also her way of processing reality. Annie creates these miniatures, it seems, as a kind of therapeutic act, and as a means of understanding the increasingly confounding things that are happening in her life. Initially, these miniature scenes are, by her own description, “objective”. It is telling that later in the film, when Annie’s grip on reality is loosening, we see her represent things in her miniatures which are not from objective reality but are in fact from her dreams. This is a clear sign that her objectivity and “control” are in peril. The film itself is shot in such a way as to make the human characters on screen look like they are inhabiting their own kind of miniature tableau. A number of scenes are shot side-on, so we are looking at a whole room in a wide shot, and seeing the family interact in that room. This creates the impression that a wall has been knocked down and we are viewing the characters in a kind of doll house. In this way, the framing / composition of the film becomes a sly commentary, elucidating one of the key elements of the story – control and the lack of control; how the Grahams ultimately have no control over their lives, and are in fact just play things for Ellen Leigh and her unholy machinations.
Hereditary is a must see for any Horror fan, or anyone who is not afraid to take a chance on a boldly terrifying film. It deserves to be regarded as a new classic (I couldn’t help but think of this as a kind of 21st century Rosemary’s Baby), in that it takes familiar elements and plays them in such a refreshing and effective way. For those of us with a high tolerance for on-screen scares, and an appreciation for the Horror genre and what has come before, get ready for a new vision of terror that showcases supernatural elements and their realistically felt impacts from a promising new director we’ll want to follow in the years ahead.