Movie Review: Hereditary
By Ben Gruchow
June 20, 2018
In case it was still needed, here it is: incontrovertible proof of the way that it’s not what a story is about, but how it’s about it, about how commitment to tone and character and mood can not only overcome a standard story but render complaints about its unoriginality irrelevant. Here is a film relatively light on incident, with that incident being mostly comprised of genre elements we’ve seen countless times before—yet pulled along by such a singularly devastating performance at its center and such a relentlessly brutal sense of self from back to front that it makes fools of those who argue against the technicalities of plot progression.
I advise you to forgo the concessions for this film, out of consideration for your equilibrium. Even coffee or crackers is probably pushing it. Perhaps a nice cup of herbal tea, at least until the first scene around Joanie’s dining-room table. Then you’re on your own. The caution isn’t for any gross-out factor; despite the R rating (and except for one smash-cut to a horrifying image, made even more so by the harsh light of day), Hereditary is not a particularly gory film until the final minutes, and even then it’s not gratuitous by genre standards. No, the caution is because of everything that comes before the final minutes—for the pervasive, unrelenting dread of inevitability and tension. This film tested my endurance, in these regards, like few before it.
We see a treehouse through a window, and woods beyond. The camera glides backward and pans, giving us a glimpse of the room we’re in, and we’re confronted by dollhouses in various states of completion. Then we close in on the upstairs room of one dollhouse in particular, and gradually find ourselves in a life-sized bedroom as a character enters. It’s of the neatest transitional shots I’ve seen in years, one made no less impressive by how direct and unobtrusive it is. Right from the start, the movie is canny about leaving the level of implication up to the viewer, and we’re invited to consider the switch in perspective that occurs in this opening shot. The bedroom belongs to Peter (Alex Wolff, giving the film’s second-best performance). The entrance is by his father Steve (Gabriel Byrne), delivering Peter’s suit. They are late for a funeral, he’s told; his mother is already in the car.
The deceased is Peter’s grandmother, Ellen, and she is eulogized by her daughter Annie. Annie is played by Toni Collette, giving not only the film’s best performance but one of the most harrowing in years. Ellen was a secretive and controlling woman, we’re told; at this, we observe and think: Like mother, like daughter. Annie appears hunched, her hair partly covering her face. She tries to create some levity during the eulogy and her speech and rhythm are too constricted and halting to come across as anything but awkward. The family has one more member, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), who seems to have inherited this secretive and awkward nature at a developmental level.
Annie has been attending group counseling sessions—in secret, of course—and when her time comes to introduce herself, we get not only a history of mental illness and loss on her mother’s side of the family, but a meandering outpouring of confusion and grief and anger at what her mother’s misfortune did to the woman herself, what her resulting influence and dysfunction has done to Annie, what Annie has in turn done to Charlie. Moments like these, and others within writer/director Ari Aster’s screenplay, infuse a familiar setup with a keen sense of feeling and nuance.
I deliberately avoid going into any more detail about the plot, except to say that the monologue encapsulates most of what the movie is about: the pervasive awareness of a family dynamic that’s felt wrong from the beginning, the guilt that the members of that family feel (both real and perceived) at their culpability for making it go wrong in the ways that it has, and the inability to find the right words or the right actions to heal from it—or indeed, to do anything other than make it worse—even when the opportunity is right there in front of them. I suppose I could also say that the movie deals with the growing possibility that Ellen’s secretive nature may have been in service of something far more insidious than simple introversion, but that ultimately feeds back into the primary dramatic material on a thematic level.
Things happen after the funeral. Annie begins to go through a box of her mother’s old belongings, but can’t go any further than a book on spiritualism containing an oddly formal note addressed to her from the woman herself. Single words appear on Charlie’s bedroom wall in tiny handwriting—words that creep up to the edge of intelligibility and familiarity but stop just short. A bird kills itself flying into one of the windows of Charlie’s classroom, and we see her surreptitiously cut its head off later and take it with her. Annie works in designing miniature scenes, usually in mid-tableaux, and the gallery for her exhibit in progress wants an update she cant give them—possibly because the scenes she’s designing are getting more personal and disturbing. Many scenes take place in profile, with the rooms at right angles to us and the camera moving laterally. The movie develops some of these implications more than others; I never really got the significance of the words on the wall. And given how much of what transpires later relies on a character not looking through them, I can’t imagine a reason why Annie’s mother would have kept her old photo albums and scrapbooks at easy enough access to end up in a cardboard box upon her death. The ultimate reveal of the party responsible for most of the movie’s crisis is a rather bland storytelling choice, all told.
You know what all of these observations are, though? Coping mechanisms. I don’t observe them because I must find *something* to carp and nitpick about; I observe them because doing so helped me feel better about being at home alone at night after the screening I attended. Such is the raw power of the vehicle this story arrives in. This is the performance of Collette’s career so far, from her first appearance to her last. Given a difficult role to play, she creates an extraordinarily layered manifestation of guilt, fear, rage, and resentment, channeling them into a performance that thrums like a live wire even in her quietest moments. She’s responsible for the two most agonizing character moments in the film, one of them communicated entirely offscreen. Wolff is a revelation as Peter, gradually and deliberately stripping away layers of the character, corkscrewing deeper and deeper into traumatized paranoia until there’s barely anything left. And the movie still has cards to play for him after that. The final revelations elicited disbelief from some of the audience members around me (audience members that I note were until then holding their breath and letting it out in shaky little gasps every few minutes, just like I was); as the movie invites us to think about the location of that final scene, how its occupants arrived there, we realize that the movie has been building toward the inevitability of the scene all along, and there was almost no other way for it to end unless it had simply cut to credits sooner.
Hereditary is the type of existential horror film it’s almost impossible to comprehend getting a wide release today, let alone one dropped right into the sweet spot of the summer movie season. The dismal opening-night CinemaScore grade the movie received misses the mark by a wide margin, but it also makes perfect sense given audience expectation. The trailers do a fabulous job masking the revelations of the plot while conveying the unsettling nature of the imagery, but this also means that the movie’s more tragic and traumatic manifestations come as a total surprise. Audiences today are used to being sold on a movie as a known quantity, one that adheres to a certain safety and impermanence, setting our expectations to a certain level and fulfilling them efficiently. Even horror films, that most socially transgressive of genres, has gotten into the practice. Consider prior summer horror releases that found critical acceptance: the Conjurings chief among them. I liked both of those films, but they’re mostly there to play nice and communicate haunted-house jump scares using expertly deployed technique. Hereditary is well beyond either of those, superlative on a technical level but truly disturbing and relentless on the level of character psychology, and my guess is that it short-circuits audience members.
There’s also a tendency to react to a movie that goes far bolder and darker in its tone and incident than expected (and crosses an invisible line in doing so) with immediate disengagement from the material as a stress response. No matter the level of craftsmanship or character work on display, the entirety of the experience is turned off and tuned out by the audience member who had a certain threshold separating the known quantity from the unknown quantity, where the former represents enjoyment and the latter represents failure, that was transgressed by the film. This mindset is true of most of us at one time or another; we all develop some kind of expectation ahead of time, and we cannot always be “on”. The extent to which you respond to Hereditary depends on how you generally treat exposure to that threshold with movies, and how well you’re able to separate that response from the validity of the material. I respond to movies that move into the space of an unknown quantity, and that challenge my expectations, and I think this is one of the best films of the year. I also came very close to walking out of the auditorium several times to give my nerves a break, and I spent the final five minutes or so looking at the screen through my fingers. Take from that what you need to.
5 out of 5