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Written & Directed by Ari Aster
Here is where I would typically write up a brief synopsis of the plot of the film I was reviewing before digging into the themes and performances. There would be a read more line after this paragraph where I would go into those things. However, I am going to put the plot synopsis below the “read more” line and would urge you that if you haven’t seen Hereditary to stop reading this review and do that first. Then come back and finish.
Annie Graham has just lost her mother and is processing the death with a strange feeling of guilt, but not sure over what. She is an artist, specializing in miniatures of people and placing them in settings based on real-life events. She is also a mother and a wife, to Peter & Charlie and Steve, respectively. She was a sister, but her younger brother Charles suffered from mental illness and hung himself many years earlier. Annie is many things, but her grasp on all of them appears to be slipping. A sudden additional tragedy in the Grahams’ life sends Annie hurtling down a path of madness. Her only hope comes in the form of Joan, a fellow member of a grief support group. Annie was estranged from her mother for many years, and as she begins to unravel the woman’s past, Annie discovers she is the inheritor of something genuinely evil.
Horror, as noted in a deluge of opportunistic internet articles, is having a strong resurgence in the mainstream audiences. Now I would argue the specific sub-genre of horror that is seeing the height of popularity is an expensive version of a carnival funhouse, very little substance or long-lasting dread, focused more on quick jump scares. A24 has refrained from going down that road with Blumhouse (Sinister, Insidious, Paranormal Activity). A24 has been responsible for some of the better, more atmospheric and intelligent horror of the last few years: The Witch, It Comes At Night, Enemy. Hereditary is no exception, with one caveat. Hereditary is an incredibly straightforward, classical horror film.
There isn’t a third act twist in Ari Aster’s debut feature film. I was pretty sure I had a sense of where things were going around the time Joan suggests Annie hold a seance and invoke the spirit of a loved one. The movie is making sure we have a sense of unease around Annie’s mother’s legacy from the start of the film, highlighting the strange number of people attending her funeral and these strangers’ presence in Peter and Charlie’s lives. They are always somewhere in the distance, smiling and waving in an unnerving manner. I was reasonably sure there was some cult happening in the backstory of this family and that the film was leading some horrific climax in regards to them.
The power of Hereditary is not in some shocking reveal in the plot, but in the outrageous outbursts between family members, particularly Annie and Peter. The film is primarily about the relationship between this mother and son, with the doomed and damned relationship between the late matriarch and her son, Charles looming in the murky shadows. Toni Collette plays Annie and once again reminds us of her power as an actor. She finds that unbalanced place of a mother who has fears about the mental illness that may be present in her family tree. Her youngest, Charlie (played by the astonishingly good Milly Shapiro) is a withdrawn child prone to tinkering with constructed people, made of scraps of things she finds. In many ways, Charlie is a reflection of Annie. They are both devoted to their art and Annie worries about what Charlie will miss by being so embedded in the internal world.
Peter is a little less developed, but this shallowness may be intentional, and I think it adds to the tragedy of the family. He is presented with little to no interests beyond smoking weed and fawning after a classmate. He has no direction in his life and just sort of exists. What Peter doesn’t know is that forces outside his control already have a future planned for him, one that was plotted out long before he was conceived. But what is happening to Peter is that he is self-medicating for emotional pain. We see Annie and Steve both popping what we can presume are mood altering prescription drugs. Mental illness looms over this family, and the supernatural aspects of the picture can be read as metaphors for the fear and terror that can grip people who begin to wonder if they were born with the same chemical imbalances that took their loved ones.
Hereditary is not a horror film with a final surviving hero or a movie that leaves you feeling like evil has been defeated. Darkness is triumphant in the conclusion, and that likely won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has seen the trailer or heard the briefest mentions of the film by critics. As the title suggests, the horror of Hereditary emerges from the idea that the family unit is a terrifying configuration that we encounter in our lives and that even our homes are places of looming terror. There is a scene where Peter wakes up in his bedroom, disturbed by noise from somewhere outside. In the background, we see a figure move in a way that is physically impossible, without the soundtrack blurting out a jumpscare violin cue. It’s this quiet fear that surrounds the film. I suspect Hereditary is a film that is going to stick with me for a long time to come.