Hereditary: Ari Aster’s (Horrific) Examination of Death, Grief and Family

HEREDITARY is disturbing.  HEREDITARY flirts with the mundane.  HEREDITARY is explosively intense.  HEREDITARY is a slow-burn.  HEREDITARY is grounded in the depressing realities of family strife.  HEREDITARY is supernatural and otherworldly.  HEREDITARY pays homage to 60s/70s horror icons (shouts to Kubrick, Friedkin, and Polanski).  HEREDITARY doesn’t concern itself with the audiences’ attention span or modern horror ‘jump scare’ tropes.  HEREDITARY is the greatest horror film of this decade.  

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Photo: A24

Periodically, I’ll see a movie that causes me an introspective moment during which I think, “l’ll always remember the first time I saw this.”  As I write about 2018’s HEREDITARY, I feel occasional shivers down my spine when I recount moments in my brain.  A sign of effectiveness?  Without a doubt.

The plot narrative begins simple enough.  The film opens over black with a somber eulogy.  Ellen Graham — matriarch of the Graham family — is dead.  Her daughter Annie Graham (a transcendent Toni Collette), miniaturist artist, lives with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), their teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and their 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro).  At the funeral of her mother, Ellen, Annie delivers a bizarre eulogy explaining her tenuous relationship with her mother, who was extremely secretive.  “Should I be sadder?” Annie asks her husband after returning from the funeral — the first signs of a greater guilt in play.  At a grief support group, Annie reveals that the rest of her family growing up, including her family, suffered from mental illnesses.  To discuss the plot any further would [grave] rob you of surprise, which I shan’t do.  Suffice it to say: buckle up for a descent into the darkness of mental illness and the occult.

There are, unfortunately, many elements scarily relate-able here.  Disappointment.  Stress in the family bleeding through the cracks.  Pressure boiling during passive aggressive dinners.  Mommy smiling at daddy through clenched teeth.  At some point, everyone is pretending they’re perfectly fine.  A question in true relation to the film’s namesake: are we destined to become our parents?  And, in trying to avoid this outcome (if that is our goal), do we inadvertently cause the result — a genetic self-fulfilling prophecy?  These familiar themes run rampant here and anchor the plot as the audience traverses through its twists and turns wondering what will happen next.

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Photo: A24

Rhetorical question: can a review of this movie be written without praising Toni Collette‘s transcendent performance as troubled (understatement) mother Annie Graham?  Indeed, writer/director Aster — in describing her casting — explained that the role “requires a certain lack of vanity” and that Collette “had the balls to take [the character] on.”  The result is the defining performance of Collette’s career.  Concerns born from the trailer that Collette would simply be playing a crazy-ass lady were immediately quelled, as the scenes where she says nothing at all are equally or more powerful than the exchanges in which her already questionable sanity beings to slip (honorable mention to the family dinner scene from hell).  The film proves an old adage true: quiet moments can ring the loudest.  Though Collette has copious opportunities to go [cuckoo clock noise] — and she nails these in stride — her most impressive scenes are juxtaposed with these psychotic outbreaks.  A loving moment with her daughter before bedtime or a worrisome exchange with her overly protected son’s underage alchol consumption.  These seemingly mundane scenes make you query: who is this woman really?  Collette will frighten you, make you laugh with discomfort, and, perhaps most chillingly, smile as you think of a time when your own mother protected you — many times all in the same scene.  With the emergence of last year’s GET OUT, the Academy has shown some recognition to the horror genre.  [Turns on record] if Collette doesn’t nab a Best Actress nomination, it’s a sham in the first degree.

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Photo: A24

Similar praise goes to Alex Wolff.  Portraying the Graham family’s tormented son, Peter, Wolff is — in more ways than one — the MVP of the film.  And like LeBron hanging 51 on the Warriors in Game 1 of the 2018 Finals, Wolff does not take his role lightly.

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Photo: A24

Peter is a standard teenager.  He skips class, smokes weed in the bathroom, and stares at his crush’s prepubescent butt from behind through her classroom desk chair.  His inane texts with his stoner buddies are hilariously familiar: “badass party tonight, bring your dick.”  Wolff convincingly plays both the stoned ambivalence of a teenager and a child frightened of the supernatural and homicidal events surrounding him.  In one jaw-dropping scene in particular, the camera holds unwavering on Wolff’s awe-struck face (pictured above), as he processes an event that the hopeful majority of us couldn’t comprehend.  Extended moments like these — when any other filmmaker would have focused on the gore or aftermath — are what make HEREDITARY and Aster’s direction so special.

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Photo: A24

Speaking of, written and directed by 29-year-old Ari Aster, HEREDITARY is a helluva come out party.  In recent interviews, Aster described his vision for a film when pitching it as “a family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare.”  Notably, in pre-production, he was careful not to screen horror films to his production designer and cinematographer and instead ruminated on family dramas (2001’s IN THE BEDROOM was mentioned).  Aster also discussed the jarring event about thirty minutes into the film as HEREDITARY’s “PSYCHO moment” — permanently altering the progression and tone of the film.  Rest assured, you’ll know when this moment arrives (it does with a literal and emotional BANG).

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Photo: The Verge 

The Problem with People:

As of this writing, HEREDITARY holds a D- in Audience CinemaScore and a 59% percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes juxtaposed with its 91% fresh from critics.  In other words, critics laud this movie as a modern horror masterpiece befitting of THE EXORCIST (perhaps a little hyperbolic) and ROSEMARY’S BABY (more on the nose in my opinion), whereas audiences seem to think the movie “sucked” to use the parlance of our times.

It should go without saying that the movie is weird — par for the course when dealing with a coven of demon worshipers and possession.  On the other hand, the movie also has a sense of the mundane — death, family trauma, and the family members’ ability (or inability) to process grief.  The bizarre ending ties together the threads and rackets up the tension, but it’s certainly a crawl across razor blades getting there.  The movie is quiet.  The movie is atmospheric.  The movie lingers on the absurd.  Aster refuses to shy away from cringe-worthy moments of mental illness and family strife.  Rather than jump-cut around to emulate the frantic and psychotic energy of the plot, the camera holds on our characters for uncomfortably long sequences — all but removing places for the audience to hide.  Beware, there be no jump scares here.  Rather, every moment of dread is extraordinary well-earned and set up.

All this to say, the reason audiences didn’t vibe with this movie is because the movie doesn’t coddle the viewer.  There are horror tropes, but no heroic or happy ending to be found.  The reason audiences didn’t vibe with this movie is the reason I become increasingly disappointed with modern theatergoers in general: smaller attention spans seeking loud noises and spooky creatures jumping into the frame.  Patrons these days are unwilling to sit down and become absorbed in something nuanced.  Something that requires a little thought and reflection to absorb — something truly horrific.  And that something is HEREDITARY.  Thank you, Mr. Aster.  I will watch your career with great interest.

FOUR/FOUR BARNS (ON FIRE)!

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Photo: A24

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