I have thought long and hard about how to write this post. I went into Hereditary completely blind, I just knew that my Twitter feed was exploding about this movie. When I left the theater, I realized a spoiler-free review would just read, “I liked it. It was good.” So, beware, there are spoilers yonder. I hate to tell people not to read my words, but it was so great seeing this movie with no clue what was going to happen. If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to read spoilers, then turn back! Or else Spoiler Pirate Cat will make you walk the plank. Seriously, spoilers will be happening below the picture of the cat!
Hereditary is directory Ari Aster’s feature-length debut. Briefly, the movie is like if The Exorcist had a baby with Rosemary’s Baby and The Wicker Man.
Toni Collette stars as Annie Graham, a miniature artist who makes models based on her life. I swear, if Toni Collette doesn’t get ALL the awards this season, I’m going to riot.
The movie opens with the death of Annie’s mother and the uncomfortable eulogy that Annie gives, where she’s straightforward about what a contentious and secretive woman her mother was.
Gabriel Byrne plays her husband, Steve, who’s just trying to hold the family together. Alex Wolff (John Backderf in My Friend Dahmer) plays their son, Peter, and Milly Shapiro plays their daughter, Charlie. Charlie is mildly mentally disabled.
While at a grief counseling session, Annie lays out her family’s legacy of mental illness. Her father starved himself to death in a fit of depression induced psychosis, her brother was bipolar and killed herself. In his suicide note, he accused their mother of trying to put people in him. Annie’s mother was diagnosed with disassociative identity disorder and dementia in her final days.
I love the theme of grief in this movie because, at least in western culture, it’s not something we speak about frequently. This goes double for complicated grief, when the bereaved had a fraught relationship with the deceased. How do you mourn someone that you don’t like, let alone love? Especially when society tells you that this person is someone you’re supposed to love more than most other people. As someone who’s studied death and grieving, complicated grief is some of the most difficult grief to deal with.
What I like about this movie is that Annie isn’t necessarily a sympathetic character. She’s not reaching out to her family and crying or doing anything that we associate with sympathetic feminine grief. Instead, she throws herself into her work, recreating her struggles with her mother in miniature. There’s a brittle anger to her that reminds me of Amelia from The Babadook. I like it. I’ll almost always support a movie with a mother who isn’t perfect.
Peter gets invited to a party. Annie insists that he take Charlie, even though it’s clear that neither one of them want her to go. Charlie has a severe allergic reaction to cake with nuts in it. She dies in an incredible freak accident while Peter drives her to the hospital. This scene is one of the most brutal scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie, even though it’s mostly bloodless. I don’t want to go too deeply into it, let me just say it isn’t her allergy that kills her. Peter hides in bed instead of calling 911 or telling his parents. Annie finds Charlie dead in the car. The audience doesn’t see this but hears her reaction as she goes down to the car and finds the body. It’s one of the most emotionally raw scenes I’ve experienced in a movie.
The family is irreparably shattered from this moment. It’s clear that Peter and Annie blame each other and, if we’re being realistic, they both own some of the blame. Charlie didn’t even want to go to the party, Annie basically forced her to go. And one of the last things Annie said to her was to call her an idiot. Peter was driving while high. This leads to another, incredibly uncomfortable scene, where Annie and Peter basically lay bare their anger and resentment of each other.
If the movie cut out any mention of the supernatural, it would still be a tense domestic drama. Annie tries grief counseling again where she befriends Joan (Ann Dowd). Joan tells her about a method to contact the other side and Annie becomes consumed by trying to reach out to Charlie. She thinks she’s reached her but the spirit’s actions are increasingly malevolent, especially towards Peter. Has she really reached Charlie and does the girl’s spirit just want vengeance for her death? Or has she reached something older and more dangerous? The last fifteen minutes of this movie are absolutely insane. Let’s just say that grandma was involved in something deeply evil that ruins not only her husband and son’s lives, but also the lives of Annie’s entire family. Let’s also say, that Charlie’s accident isn’t so much a freak accident, as it was probably orchestrated by grandma. Evil wins in this movie and it’s not at all like the end of The Wicker Man, when Sergeant Howie is such a jerk that you don’t feel bad about what happens to him. Not one, but two families are destroyed by the grandmother’s actions.
This movie is a slow-burner. Don’t go into this expecting a very fast pace. It’s very subdued and domestic until Charlie dies. That being said, the movie is incredibly tense. Don’t expect jump scares galore, it’s more like you become very invested in this family and everything that happens to them becomes a devastating blow. The score heightens the tension, ranging from a traditional orchestral score, to low drumming like a heartbeat, to silence punctuated by the clucking noise Charlie would make.
Aside from grief, the movie’s major theme is how much of a burden it can be dealing with a terminally ill or mentally ill/disabled loved one. This is doubly difficult when you don’t particularly love the loved one. Annie is clearly overwrought and exhausted by the time her mother dies. There’s a strong chance her family would have fallen apart even without the supernatural influence.
The visuals remind me of The Exorcist, especially towards the end when Annie is possessed. The way she moves in her white outfit is reminiscent of Regan MacNeil. Parts of the ending also reminded me of Audition, you’re not going to look at wire the same way again.
The plot reminds me of occult literature from the turn of the century. I’m thinking of the malevolent paganism from The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen and the weird stories of Algernon Blackwood. I haven’t actually watched True Detective but I’ve read The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers, which I know was the influence on season one. This movie resembles these turn of the century stories. It’s not just the plots about sinister cults and pagans, but because they’re all slow to start. There’s usually a straight-laced narrator explaining how he got involved in such shocking supernatural doings, and it’s a solid forty pages before anything remotely freaky happens. You won’t be disappointed if you remind yourself it’s not a Blumhouse film, and there aren’t going to be puppets and jump scares every fifteen minutes.