There’s one scene in Hereditary that unnerved me unlike any other movie I have seen. I remember clutching my breath and wanting to cry. I can’t spoil it and giving my reaction feels like a spoiler. It was almost as if the film pluck an extremely personal deep fear from my brain and plopped on it on screen. As if to say, “here’s what happens when you do that thing your dad told you not to do when you were a boy because this is what would happen.” I was traumatized by the brutal plausibility of the scene. It also reminded me of something very similar to an event in my own life, which made it stick a little more. I love Hereditary, in part, because I recognize my own family dynamic and history with mental illness in the film. This is not to say I’ve had the same exact experience, but it is analogous and cathartic to see the film.
Hereditary tells the story of the Graham family coping after the death of their grandmother Ellen: Annie an artist who builds miniature houses/scenes recreating events from her life, her husband Steve, whose job is never specified so let’s say he’s a jazz musician, Peter, a junior in high school, and Charlie, the oddball of the family who creates her own art pieces out of twigs and severed bird heads and makes a weird clucking sound.
The film opens on a miniature house in a home studio. The camera draws us closer, revealing the layout of the building. All of the rooms in their own segmented boxes as if to represent the distance and isolation among the family members. We then zoom in on Peter’s bedroom just as Steve enters the room. At this point the room has filled out the frame and we are in their world and about to experience the unspeakable horrors waiting for them. That’s about all of the plot I’m willing to give away.
It’s the scariest fucking movie I’ve seen since I was a little boy. I’ve been sleeping with lights on since I saw it. However, upon leaving the theater I was emotionally devastated.
This is a movie about an isolated family struggling to cope with loss and tremendous amounts of guilt, while also dealing with a lot of supernatural shit. Each of the characters is haunted by some wrong they’ve committed unto each other prior to or during the film. Their crippling guilt feeds their hostility towards one another. A dinner table argument between Peter and Annie is one of the most honest depictions I’ve seen recently of how easy it is for family members to hit way below the belt in fights. Nothing is sacred when you’re mad at someone in your family. To Aster’s credit these characters aren’t bogged down by their pain. It’s clear how hard each of them is fighting to make the better of their situation and to keep the family together. It’s hard not to love characters who have so much hope in spite of all their setbacks. The Grahams are strong people. The question of whether they’re strong enough makes the tragedy hit that much harder.
There is a real sense of danger in the film. Anything can happen to anyone at any time. This is made abundantly clear early on. Nobody is safe and the Grahams are alone in this. They don’t have ghost hunters like the Warrens from The Conjuring or even a therapist to help them with their issues. They are at the foot of a tidal wave.
The tonal balance in this film is a feat because there is also a lot of dark humor. This is really tricky and I think a lesser film would try this only for the humor to completely derail everything the film set up. But the humor isn’t contrived. It all stems from the honest reactions of the characters to this absurd scenario. Anyone who faces the shit they’re going through would have to stop and say, “Are you fucking serious? Really?” Ann Dowd plays an overzealous spiritualist, Joan, who befriends Annie at a grief counseling session. Her almost rabid enthusiasm and positivity is off putting, but not unbelievable. Up until her character’s introduction we’re not given a lot of levity so really any bit of brightness is going to seem weird. Annie doesn’t have any friends in this movie and it’s nice to see her make friends. It doesn’t take long for Joan to rope Annie into a séance, which turns out to be one of the most ridiculous scenes of the film. They go to Joan’s apartment, set up the séance to commune with Joan’s dead grandson, and all the while you’re expecting some jump scare to come out, but it turns out to be a really positive conversation with her grandson. Annie, initially skeptical of the séance, gives this great “what the fuck” look on her face as she checks below the table and around the room to see if its real. Later on after being convinced, she tries to rope Peter and Steve in to a séance. She feverishly wakes them up in the middle of the night as if to convince them Santa Claus is real. Humoring her they groan and join her in the living room and that’s when the horror begins again.
The relationship between humor, tragedy, and horror in the film is symbiotic. As you come down from the relief of a funny scene or are reeling from a deeply felt dinner table argument you’re hit with a scene of indescribable and surreal terror. After watching a scary scene you’re thankful for a nice joke, or are recovering with the family from the damage in its aftermath. The devices used in the film don’t reinvent the wheel. I don’t think it has any intention of doing that. This is a movie that wears its influences on its sleeves. That hardly makes it beholden to them. Instead like any great jazz musician, it is able to take a familiar device and use it in a way that is fresh and exciting. The jump scares linger, leaving us to stare at a smiling silhouette. Sometimes we see through the eyes of the character, other times we see what’s going on behind them. Really typical stuff, but it’s the craftsmanship and execution of it that sets it apart.
So much of the strength of the story can be accredited to the precision of the writing and crystal clear objective work of all the of the actors. Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne, and Ann Dowd do beautiful work: everyone knows exactly what movie they’re in, they’re receiving, giving, have clear points of view, and desperately need something from each other. All of this specificity flourishes under the specificity of writer/director, Ari Aster. In interviews he discusses how he wanted audiences to feel watching this film and it’s clear that his specificity allowed him to craft everything in service of that goal.
Storytelling is in a lot of ways manipulation. By taking narrative devices we create scenarios that will have some kind of effect on audiences. A way to determine the successfulness of that is to see if the audiences received what you were giving. This is not to say that an audience getting something different from your film is a bad thing but it’s an especially good thing if you made a story with the intention of leaving the audience feeling devastated and betrayed
I have been thinking about this movie ever since I saw it and plan to watch it again. It’s packed with symbolism and references to demonology, Greek tragedies, etc.. The cinematography, writing, acting, lighting, directing, and score by Sax virtuoso Colin Stetson all make up what is easily my favorite movie of the year so far, which is not say it’s a perfect film. There is no such thing as perfect. There could be work done on the movie and it may not be scary for everyone. Horror is very much based on taste, so of course take everything I’m saying with a grain of salt. But from the product we got, I am thoroughly satisfied.
I’m seeing more and more of my parents in me with each year. Sometimes I worry whether or not I’ll wind up making the mistakes they made and succumbing to the illnesses my family has battled. Hereditary asks, what if you can’t change that? How do you live your life then? How do you live with and love your family? It’s portrayal of those questions is bleak, but it leaves those answers to us.
Hereditary gets ten out of ten pigeon heads.