After seeing Hereditary a few weeks ago, I left stunned, thinking that I hadn’t seen a horror film like Hereditary in a very long time. So much happened, much of it overwhelming in its emotional punch and terror. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I gave up trying to decipher things and instead just let memories of it come to me. It is one of the most genuinely horrific films I’ve seen recently. It’s also one of the most depressing films I’ve seen in a long time.
After weeks of not knowing how to write this review, I finally managed to lean into the film’s complexity. Hereditary is so good at unfolding itself, at managing what information it offers the audience and when. Not only does this model make for excellent slow burns, but it also mirrors the disintegration of the family as their first loss spirals into unimaginable horror. It is a tragic story, really, a film about a woman that unwittingly enables and fulfills her family’s nightmarish fate.
As far as horror movies go, Hereditary isn’t focused on entertainment, though I found the film entertaining in and of itself. No, Hereditary is more focused on using its story and characters to create a fundamentally unnerving experience. It explores how we are at our most vulnerable around our family members, and despite our fervent beliefs that we can ignore the scars and outrun the past, we can’t always.
Hereditary, directed by Ari Aster, follows Annie Graham (Toni Collette) and her family in the wake of her mother’s death. Annie and her mother had a complicated relationship and were estranged for many years, which complicates Annie’s feelings about her mother and her family. As she struggles to stay focused on her life, she begins to suspect that some sinister forces are threatening to rip apart her family. Gabriel Byrne stars as her husband Peter, Alex Wolff as son Peter Graham, and Milly Shapiro as daughter Charlie Graham.
The less you know about this film going in, the better.
Hereditary succeeds by making the mundane mysterious and the inane intimidating before the shit hits the fan. Its visual style and cinematography do an excellent job here. The motif of depicting the family as moving through their house as if through a dollhouse hearkens back to childhood but also hints at an unseen hand moving the pieces. The stunning aesthetic of shots of the environment’s natural beauty soothes at the same time that it makes one uneasy. Who could have thought that birch trees, lush forests, distant mountains, dark and desolate roads curving around hills could be so disquieting?
The family’s house, the stage for much of the film, also contributes to the foreboding atmosphere. At first, everything about the home seems inviting, an enviable example of a modern craftsman home belonging to a well-to-do family. Any family would love to live there (I freaking love the craftsman style). But as the movie progresses, we come to see the house as a little too hard, a bit too cold, a little too dark. It’s spacious living area and long hallways and sprawling rooms stops feeling comfortable and instead feels sinister as the story progresses.
Likewise, each frame is precise, composed with an eye towards both instilling visual information and invoking as much eerie dread as possible. Even scenes of “normal” life work to add tension and put the audience on edge. There are a lot of wide, long shots and gradual zooms to give the film a retro feel. These shots also overwhelm the viewer with too much detail to see, hinting that the viewer is missing something hidden in plain sight. Close shots are also frequently employed to capture intense emotion as characters struggle (and often fail) to retain control. The tight shots also provide a myriad of near-indecipherable clues, such that the audience receives intriguing information, but they don’t know what to do with it.
Visually, there’s a ton going on in this film, more than can be adequately noted in a single viewing. It’s confusing, but not to the point that it interferes with the overall plot. Aster took the family’s confusion and weaved into the film’s visual language.
Of course, the plot works similarly.
So much of the viewing experience of Hereditary is due to the measured yet organic way in which the plot unfolds, combining horror movie mainstays with original developments that come out of nowhere. To that end, many people have felt like the movie careens off-course, devolving into a mess, especially in the last half hour. I think that misses the point—Hereditary was about a family caught up in forces beyond their control, subject to dark forces they could not imagine until it was too late to protect themselves. And the audience was strapped in also.
As a horror fan, I appreciated how Hereditary bucks conventions. Without spoiling anything, I felt that the plot developments were unexpected and avoided feeling slapped together for the sake of being new. Significant plot developments have an uncanny ability to sneak up on the audience, and even the sharpest horror fan will put the pieces together only when it’s too late. I mean, the clues were there the whole time, I just had to pay attention.
But sometimes people don’t like to pay attention, especially to a movie that makes you work to keep up. And Hereditary is not your average horror movie. You have to work for it, let yourself be invested in it, to get close to the characters and acknowledge their pain. I think people bristle at having to empathize in horror movies because it’s a very personal way to feel unformattable and scary. That’s the part of the horror experience that’s most difficult—to truly understand horror films like Hereditary you must empathize. A slasher does not demand that you put yourself in the shoes of the character. No matter how much you jump or scream when the killer lunges out from the shadows, you’re safe, untouched. Horror films like Hereditary demand that you let your guard down and reflect on themes like reluctant motherhood, grief, resentment, and the lengths people will go to impose their wishes.
Yeah, Hereditary asks a lot of its audience: balance strained family dynamics, twisted personal secrets, and, of course, the unraveling of a profoundly sinister, evil plot with the sparingly used by well-executed gore. The film could have lost itself under these themes.
Thankfully, Hereditary had the acting firepower to avert disaster. Everyone is great, but I have to call out two specific actors—Toni Collette as Annie Graham, and Alex Wolff as Peter Graham. They are the film’s stars.
Toni Collette is fierce to watch. She’s raw and full of guilt, barely keeping it together. In hindsight, there’s something profoundly sad about how doggedly she works on her miniatures. They are the only things in the world she can control. Collette’s character experiences a wide and deep breadth of human experiences, from motherly frustration to cool detachment towards her mother’s death, from debilitating grief to volcanic rage. And for all her wails and outbursts and moments of anguish, her acting never feels over the top. She feels like a woman pushed to the edge. That’s incredibly difficult to pull off, and I do not think this film could have worked with a lesser talent in the role. (Get that Oscar, girl!)
Alex Wolff, on the other hand, provides the necessary counterweight. Where Collette screams, Wolff represses his emotions and speaks in a small voice. He balances her hysteria with quiet but no less turbulent emotions roiling under the surface. Like Collette, he nails certain scenes (especially that scene, where [expand title=”SPOILER”]he sits in the car after Charli’s death, shocked, stunned, and paralyzed. HOLY CRAP that scene was devastating[/expand] He carries pivotal scenes by himself. He holds his own against Collete’s tour-de-force presence, especially in that scene where we find out exactly how Annie feels about having him for a son. He proves himself a real talent with a natural, magnetic presence.
Together, Collette and Wolff anchored the family tragedy as it progressed, giving the movie its emotional charge and providing a firm foundation on which to layer the horror.
That’s what I liked best about Hereditary—it relies on its characters to create and sustain the audience’s experience instead of trying to outdo itself with jump scare after jump scare. I couldn’t stop thinking about several scenes, not necessarily because of the what happened in the scene, but because of how the movie treated the scene. Having witnessed what the characters go through, I couldn’t help but reflect on the grisly scenes, the terrifying scenes, the what-the-fuck-just-happened scenes. I couldn’t stop thinking about them, or the characters and the messed up things they did to each other.
It was also an incredibly sad film. Generally speaking, the idea that you could sustain the type of loss that tears apart your family is too much. Even worse, the idea that your grief could make you vulnerable to sinister forces is almost too much. The idea that you could be powerless to change your fate goes against everything our culture values. And yet, those things happen all the time. The film roots itself in very real, tough life truths, which made the horrific elements all the more effective.
However, while I enjoyed the film, it wasn’t perfect.
I was excited for the cast when I first heard about Hereditary, especially the inclusion of Irish acting legend Gabriel Byrne. However, and I hate to say this, I felt like he was a little under-utilized in this film. The original plan for the film was for a three-hour cut, which reportedly included a lot more footage of the family’s painful disintegration. I am sure Byrne flexed his acting muscles a bit more in those scenes of “heavy, dark drama,” though I’m not sure I’ll ever find out since a) the director insists that the current cut is the “definitive cut” and I don’t think I could sit through three hours of this movie.
Because, despite how much I loved it, Hereditary felt very long. I’m all for a slow-burn, and my personal preferences for horror tend to sway towards moody, languishing films that hit you at the end rather than a movie that moves at breakneck speed. I mean, I loved The Witch precisely because it was so slow-burn. But even I thought parts of Hereditary dragged. For all the tension and even plotting, some scenes lasted way too long.
Worst of all, I strongly disliked the last 30 seconds of the movie. Generally speaking, I believe that all works of art—film, novels, music, whatever—should overestimate their audience rather than spell things out explicitly. Without spoiling too much, I felt that a certain character’s monologue lessened the impact and WTF-ness of the film’s conclusion. It would have been much creepier and stunning to leave a bit to the imagination because it’s pretty clear what happened. We don’t have to understand exactly how it happened to be moved by the ending.
All in all, Hereditary was a breath of fresh air, a continuation of the recent trend of smart horror movies dedicated to the craft of filmmaking and committed to taking risks. It’s movies like this that show what horror is capable of as a genre, where we can explore the human condition in a way other genres can’t. If nothing else, it’s provoked a ton of conversations about the horror genre, which is never a bad thing.