Miniature artist Annie Graham’s mother dies, and in her eulogy, somewhat unconventionally, Annie discusses her mother’s strange, difficult personality. Shortly after the funeral, Annie’s husband Steve learns that the grave of Annie’s mother has been desecrated, and their son Peter and daughter Charlie begin to experience strange phenomena, while Annie herself is subjected to far more than the ordinary loss of a parent.
Ari Aster, writer and director of Hereditary, should be commended for having made the best horror movie of 2018 so far. Much of the film, in fact, may be more appropriately defined as a mainstream drama, or tragedy, about the disintegration of a family in the wake of two deaths, but the movie’s final act casts it firmly, brazenly and unapologetically into pure horror. In a way, this final act shift is somewhat reminiscent of last year’s Get Out, which veered from psychological suspense into a kind of science-fiction/horror hybrid.
Aster’s directing is one of my favorite elements of this movie. Shots are held unflinchingly on uncomfortable psychological moments for much longer than is standard. (Aster has commented that his original cut had an additional thirty-five scenes, and was three hours long, all of the excised material relating to non-supernatural happenings). Consider for example the scene in which Annie attends the grief group therapy session. After overcoming her reluctance to “share,” she reveals that her now-deceased mom suffered from DID (dissociative identity disorder) and dementia, that her father died from starvation due to his psychotic depression, and that her older brother, suffering from schizophrenia, hanged himself in her mother’s bedroom and left behind an accusatory suicide note. Talk about family issues. As if that weren’t enough, she then delves into the births of Peter and Charlie, and finally expounds on her own perception as someone whom others in the family find culpable for something she can’t put into words. This confessional monologue, which goes on for almost four minutes, pushes our tolerance as viewers to the breaking point. The first half of the monologue features a steady push in of the camera. Then, Annie pauses—in any other movie the camera would now focus on someone else and perhaps transition the scene. Instead, after a few seconds’ break, Annie begins talking again, and now the camera slowly pulls out. Both the push-in and pull-out are subtly interwoven with reaction shots from the group members. This scene alone is a master class in editing and pacing, defying conventional expectations of cinema beats and subjecting us to a harrowing, almost self-parodying profession of personal woes, which is delivered with such panache by Toni Colette that the reams of exposition double as painstaking character development.
This is one of Hereditary’s interesting storytelling techniques: we don’t get to cut away or edit down the volume of the characters’ grief and torment. Then too Aster has brilliantly orchestrated the composition of critical scenes so as to blur the differences between Annie’s miniatures and the real world; this is achieved through subtle parallels in the framing of objects and bodies, and by bursts of color saturation in outside scenes, as of lights suddenly being turned on by a controlling, otherworldly entity. Kudos on how Aster’s vision has informed Pawel Pogorzelski’s consistently interesting cinematography, which presents us with a richly textured but simultaneously drab and ominous aesthetic, and with Grace Yun’s striking production design, which included the entire construction of the family house, the tree-house outside, and the design of the miniature replicas, courtesy of Steve Newburn. It’s difficult to over-emphasize the importance of the house design: this is the place in which psyches unravel, supernatural forces are made manifest, and a master plan is ultimately revealed. In its own way, the location, like it did in The Shining (1980), becomes a character, observing and silently judging the human affairs within.
Aster also elicits tremendous performances from Toni Colette—be ready for some crackerjack pyrotechnics—, Gabriel Byrne, who is mournful, sensitive, freighted down, Alex Wolff, who adroitly ranges from adolescent moodiness to numbed-out shock, and newcomer Milly Shapiro, who somehow manages to be menacing, vulnerable, and hauntingly distant all at the same time. The casting pair of Colette and Byrne is particularly noteworthy, because the actors, whether through conscious design or intuitive choices, have created perfectly complementary performances: Byrne creates a kind of negative psychic space in which Colette can emote, and he retreats visibly and beautifully in proportion to her encroachment. Colette’s performance is fearless; without strong supporting elements her unraveling, wailing and all, could have been construed as over-the-top and ridiculous, but given her character’s circumstances, a shift from contained sadness and anger to desperation and histrionics seems not only logical but necessary.
Complementing these elements, the film boasts a subtle, eerie sound design and a rich, avant-garde score by saxophonist and composer Colin Stetson, whose solo albums inspired Aster throughout the writing of the script. One of Stetson’s oscillating electronic motifs is particularly reminiscent of Orbital’s main theme for the similarly cult-concerned Octane (2003), which itself recalls older electronic horror scores.
While Aster’s screenplay is admirable, and certainly on a par with his execution as a director, I don’t think all of his dialogue operates at this same high level. Some of the expository lumps tend to break the spell of his otherwise naturalistic approach to character development, and there are a few repetitions that seem unnecessary.
After listening to various interviews with Aster, I get the sense that he wanted to explore grief and emotional devastation in a way that might be considered too punishing for conventional audiences, and so he ran these themes through a horror filter, knowing that within this playhouse they would become virtues rather than drawbacks. I think that this approach is commercially astute and pays artistic dividends, helping to break down category separation between genre and non-genre and enriching both in the process. I also love the idea of using a story to literalize our innermost demons, in essence creating a real-life nightmare.
As I was watching Hereditary Annie’s progressive disintegration reminded me of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965); the film’s triumphantly demonic ending pretty clearly evokes Rosemary’s Baby (1968). (Begin personal rant: Remember that bit of standup in which George Carlin, talking about God, says, “He's all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise—somehow just can't handle money!” Rosemary’s Baby and Hereditary remind me of this. The Devil or in this case the demon Paimon have incredible powers, are worshipped for those abilities, can manipulate the minds of humans and transcend time and death—but they somehow can’t handle bodies! They always seem to need a body. It’s probably best not to think about the logic of these things. End personal rant). Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) and Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) are both grueling treatments of child loss with which I think Hereditary is in conversation. Aster’s approach throughout much of the movie is so grounded, and rooted in the domesticity of stressed family dynamics, that it also made me think of Todd Field’s gutsy In the Bedroom (2001). Finally, some of the artifice-related formalism appears indebted to the works of Peter Greenaway, such as The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), which Aster has quoted as an influence.
This film takes time to process. In hindsight, the King Paimon plot fits naturally into everything we’ve seen, from the backstory of Annie’s other family members to her own fate and those of her husband and children. Her mother’s letter, for instance, contends that “Our sacrifice will pale next to the rewards”; Charlie reveals that her grandmother “wanted me to be a boy”; and so on. All events proceed inexorably towards the reincarnation of Paimon. Indeed, Peter’s teacher waxes eloquent about whether Heracles ever had a choice. One of Hereditary’s distinguishing, and distinctly non-commercial aspects, is that it views its characters as mere pawns, dolls inside a miniature house controlled by others, beings completely lacking agency. They don’t know this, of course, and at first neither do we, but this perspective is made clear by the end.
And this leads me to perhaps the movie’s most confrontational, transgressive choice: rather than empathizing with the characters’ tragic arcs, it looks down upon them and their foibles, it takes pleasure in their respective downfalls. What I mean is that the narrative point of view is not our—the viewer’s—point of view. Rather, it’s the perspective of a sub-sonic Lynchian malevolent force, a cruel, sadistic circle of unseen observers—perhaps the cult members—who have but one outcome in mind. The surprising harshness of this tone, and the way the film expertly creates suspense by killing off a main character early on and leaving us clueless as to where it will go next, make Hereditary an audaciously riveting and memorable outing. This is Aster’s feature film debut. One marvels, and shudders, at where he’ll go next.