Struggling to get a head
For a solid hour or so, Hereditary has something special going on. It’s an ambiguous drama-horror blend about a family ravaged by grief and mental illness, or perhaps a curse. But there is no single villain or overtly explained source of evil; just bad luck and fate. For once, I was genuinely engaged with a piece of “elevated horror,” and the generational angst, skeletons in the closet, and unbearable grief enriched the material rather than weighed it down.
Then Ann Dowd uttered the word “séance,” and I groaned. The rest of the movie unfolded in almost exactly the opposite direction that I had hoped for. I shouldn’t have been surprised; I saw Midsommar before Hereditary, although wunderkind Ari Aster made Hereditary first. Midsommar shares some problems Hereditary. Namely, it thinks its horror is more interesting as a puzzle box conspiracy than just being a collection of psychologically devastating and inexplicable occurrences.
Despite my complaints about its second half, Hereditary truly is a unique piece of filmmaking. It’s almost unbearably tense and grim, and it holds its tone steady throughout. It presents some truly horrifying images and moments at a perfect pace, always delivering a punch to the gut just as the last one has started to fade. I can’t even imagine watching this movie in a theater. I had the privilege of hitting pause to take a bathroom break and grab a glass of water, and I still felt the dread building up in my stomach.
The film stars Toni Collette as a suburban mother named Annie Graham. She has two children: a semi-popular stoner named Peter, (Alex Wolff) and a reclusive tomboy named Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Her husband, the kind but increasingly distant Steve, is played by Gabriel Byrne.
The film opens with the Graham family suffering from a normal but no less heartbreaking loss: the death of Annie’s elderly mother, who was suffering from dementia and with whom Annie had a fraught relationship.
In the subsequent days, grief and unresolved familial angst begin to solidify into a thick fog, suffocating the family. The more we see of the Grahams, the more obvious it is that they struggle with various psychological issues, though they put on normal and resilient faces. Some of these signs of mental illness vaguely resemble demonic possession — or could it just be some form of untreated schizophrenia?
The film takes a turn when the Grahams suffer a gruesome and horrifying accident that piles on the grief even higher. If you’ve read anything about Hereditary, this is probably the incident you’ve seen mentioned. I don’t want to spoil it in case you haven’t — because boy howdy, it’s not one I’m soon to forget.
This leads to the strongest stretch of the film, in which grief and resentment unravel the family so thoroughly that it feels like they might be supernaturally cursed, and some serious darkness is channeled through Annie.
Then a bit after the halfway point, as mentioned, Ann Dowd appears as a member of Annie’s grief circle and introduces a plot thread that makes the themes of Satanism and possession far too explicit. The film never recovers, even though Aster continues to deliver gut-churning tension and scares and visuals.
Annie’s profession is an artist who creates scenes with doll-like miniatures. It’s a baloney, invented-for-the-movies job that doesn’t entirely make sense in the narrative, but it enriches the character thematically and gives Aster an extra visual layer to explore. Annie flits between reality and a dread-filled haze bordering on hallucination, amplified by dollhouse-like tracking shots filled with right angles and steady cam. It’s as if Annie is viewing life from afar, constructing narratives as if she were working on one of her doll pieces.
The film’s acting is excellent across the board, but Collette and Wolff are particularly noteworthy. Wolff transforms his character from a normal teenager to a deeply troubled victim of psychosis in a believable and haunting manner. But it’s Collette who stands out, delivering a world-class performance as a mother in the midst of a breakdown, losing her patience and decorum — and possibly her sanity — as she desperately tries to regain control of her life. A dinner table argument between Collette and Wolff is basically an act-off between the two of them. It’s the best scene in the movie. I’m genuinely surprised and disappointed that Collette was not nominated for an Oscar for this role. I know the Academy typically is biased against horror, but this film is elevated and has sufficient air of prestige that I figured she’d get consideration, and the performance definitely deserves it.
It’s such a shame that the story spirals into conspiracy nonsense in its third act because when the movie operates more as a horror-infused drama than a genre exercise, it’s really outstanding and special. Even with my complaints about the story, Hereditary still packs a significant punch.