Movie Review: Horror/Drama – Hereditary
Directed by Ari Aster
Starring Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd, and Gabriel Byrne
Blood and Sorrow
Modern horror movies traffic in pain – the physical pain of victims being hacked, slashed, tortured, and disemboweled and the melodramatic and perfunctory mourning of thinly developed victims by thinly developed survivors. (I won’t even go into the stabbed-in-the-wallet pain of audiences who’ve wasted two hours on a bad movie – three hours if you count the previews). But the pain in scary movies rarely comes closer than the distance between screen and audience. We don’t feel it, of course, because we’re not the ones being eviscerated. But scarcely do we ever feel the emotional pain of the characters either. We react in horror at the horrible sights, but feel no sympathy for the victim’s suffering. In part, that’s because horror films aren’t really about the characters we’re watching. They’re about us, the viewers, our fears and insecurities, and our personal vulnerabilities as preyed upon by filmmakers with who we’ve joined in a pact to do just that. Many contemporary horror films earn their terror through easy shocks and elaborate gore. They don’t bother with character because they’re lazy and uninspired and they know they can get away with it, at the box-office at least, if not with critics. But the most satisfying films of the genre take their time to sculpt characters with whom we can empathize – characters whose emotional pain we can connect to across the audience/screen divide because we understand and relate to their humanity.
Hereditary, writer/director Ari Aster’s auspicious film debut, is so saturated with anguish and searing human emotion you could almost mistake its first half for a straight drama. Middle-aged artist, Annie Graham (Toni Collette) documents her family’s life through meticulously crafted miniatures, a metaphor perhaps for their smallness against a dark force that will soon manipulate them like helpless dolls. This notion is accentuated by the film’s opening shot which pokes into the window of the Graham’s house, into the miniature mock-up of her son’s bedroom, which suddenly becomes inhabited not by dolls but by two of the film’s lead actors. When Annie’s estranged and dementia-ridden mother dies, the family deals with the loss uneasily. The mother’s mental illness and her dominating behavior have left Annie, her son Peter (Alex Wolff), and her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) emotionally distant. But her 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) seems the most affected. Like her mother, she appears to see apparitions of her grandmother. She wanders around aimlessly, wordlessly as if possessed. Most unsettlingly, while on the school grounds one day, she spies a dead bird resting atop a bush. She removes scissors from her pocket and promptly severs the bird’s head, placing it in her pocket.
Soon after, the family suffers a sudden and shocking tragedy that threatens to destroy them, resulting in some of the most trenchant and gut-wrenching drama of any motion picture this year. The toll is hardest on Annie who seeks comfort from the compassionate and loving Joan (the perfectly cast Ann Dowd), whom she encountered at a grief support group after the death of her mother. Joan tries to teach her new friend to cope with her grief through unconventional means that throw the doors to the supernatural wide open, giving way to a series of events that are surprisingly and pleasingly unpredictable throughout the remainder of the film.
By now, the film, aided by the harrowing Collette (so memorable in her Emmy-winning role in the underrated Steven Spielberg TV series, The United States of Tara), and a brooding score by Colin Stetson (Arrival), has bound us in such a deep connection with Annie and Joan that it makes the chaotic events of the second act doubly terrifying. While the film has its obvious influences, most notably Roman Polanski’s paranoia classic, Rosemary’s Baby, and a standard body-switching device lifted from various films and television shows, it’s uniquely its own. It’s only till the credits have scrolled and you’re walking to your car humming the lilting harpsichord rhythms of Judy Collins’ version of “Both Sides Now” which plays ironically over the end titles, that you contemplate the bizarre absurdities of its final scene and begin to realize you’ve seen the story before. But it’s framed in such an engrossing and surprising narrative, you don’t even notice till you have time to catch your breath. It’s exhausting and like the best horror shows, cathartic.
Aster’s direction shows the restraint of a master. The timing of his scenes is spot-on. And he paces his story like a skillful lover patiently bringing his partner to earth-shattering orgasm. I love the way he adds mystery to the film by not announcing his intentions through dialogue. Even at the story’s end, when we get a brief bit of exposition about what’s happened, he refuses to spell out every detail. He doesn’t need to. He’s already shown us. All we have to do is pay attention. Not that paying attention to the details is that easy, particularly in the final act when he dials up the crazy to a maniacal 10.
2018 has been a banner year for horror films (despite a ludicrous Vogue clickbait piece which asserts the opposite), with A Quiet Place, Annihilation, Mandy, and the deeply dividing, but exhilarating Suspiria, already considered by many to be instant classics and the well-reviewed The Clovehitch Killer opening this weekend. Hereditary will likely be remembered as the best in show (though I would cast my vote for the cerebral mayhem of Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake). I’ve always preferred the kind of horror film that creeps up on you, slowly wrapping its bloodthirsty fingers around your neck, prolonging the suspenseful anticipation of that inevitable heart-pounding grip for maximum terror. I find this infinitely more rewarding than the high-pitched slashers to which we’ve become accustomed. Hereditary’s high voltage scares and palpable human suffering, provide a deeply satisfying and unnerving experience. It’s one of the year’s best movies.