The topic of familial estrangement is hardly new to the impetus of the narrative arc. In particular recency, plenty of wonderfully made films have explored this idea with a fluid blend of dramatic tension and character development: “Lady Bird,” “I, Tonya,” “Birdman” and perhaps even “Swiss Army Man,” to a degree. The respective character internalizes that emotional severance as a means of either reconciliation or maturation, offering a relatable and believable drive.
It’s a tried-and-true framework, being played out as far back as antiquity, which explored the emotional consequences like in “Oedipus Rex,” or transmuted that turmoil into a literal unfamiliarity as “The Odyssey” and its guiseful themes have shown: Like I said, the narrative beat is quite old. On an infinite timeline, then, don’t all ideas eventually plateau to the point of redundancy, the audience fatigued, and what was once thought to be a timeless storytelling tactic sizzles down into a self-fulfilling, satirical trope?
Perhaps. The answer is pretty subjective, depending on how sick any one viewer is of a certain narrative component. It reaches a point of arbitration, where the family drama could be nitpicked into clichés as excessively analytical as sitting at the dinner table or an unearthed affair. The list is truly endless.
Suffice to say, Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” holds its own against this argument. I should preface this review by stating just how infrequently I enjoy, let alone watch horror films, and for a few reasons: I get scared easily, dislike the adrenaline rush of fear and find jump scares or shock factors — two techniques rampant across the thousands of films in the genre — to be low-hanging fruit to qualify as a scary movie. The first two aspects are my own problems to deal with. The third, however, raises an important external question: What makes a film scary? Is there a difference from thrillers? Is “Hereditary” a thriller, a horror film … both?
Historically, I find the best films that effectively scare me focus on the ambience of the story, rather than a self-aware shooting gallery of gory dismemberment or doors slamming abruptly in a dimly-lit hallway. “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is a great example: Holstenwall isn’t just a typical city with a grotesque creature roaming the streets — it’s a character in itself, dreary and claustrophobic. So when Cesare roams its moon-drenched alleys, the dilapidated and towering homes seem to conspire against the protagonists, visually reinforcing the panicking disorientation of being chased by a murderous sleepwalker.
So that’s where I’d like to start with “Hereditary,” and may even argue it to be the film’s strongest draw. While the movie’s synopsis can be boiled down to a single sentence — an ominous supernaturality affecting a mourning family in the wake of death — its many themes and commentaries on them form tight nuances that give the film its own indistinguishable identity that can’t be explained quite as concisely.
“Hereditary” focuses on a family of four, who in the wake of the loss of their secretive and hyper-matriarchal grandmother, experience a strange and foreboding presence within and around the household: apparitions disappearing in the blink of an eye, auditory hallucinations and visuosensory nightmares which tiptoe along the threshold of imaginary and real. This is reinforced with the eponymously-on-the-nose hereditary consistency of mental illnesses in the mother’s lineage, all having seemingly met a horrid fate.
In channeling flavors of Shelley Duvall à la “The Shining,” Toni Collette’s impeccable performance as Annie, the distressed mother and diorama artist, embodies this psychological feigning which further propels itself through her habitual sleepwalking (which, contrary to my “Caligari” example, is not criteria for what I deem a good horror film). Aster bounces between episodes of hallucinatory trauma and mystic anomalies to the point of connection between the characters’ diminishing psyche and the viewer’s differentiation between what is true and deceiving. Through this, the director accomplishes one of the more impressive challenges in fear instillment: sustainment.
Throughout the film’s approximately two hours, it presents an increasingly constricting sense of dread and terror, never once allowing for breaks in between psychotic outbursts or unseen evils that continue to plague the family. Frankly, the film ascertains a tone of pure evil, and you feel blasphemed just for having watched it. This isn’t restricted to the narrative aspects, though.
From a technical standpoint, the cinematography is some of the best I’ve seen in this stretch of the 2010s. It’s kind of bothersome that Pawel Pogorzelski, the director of photography, used camera movement and lens manipulation so craftily that I had never heard of him before. His highlights in “Hereditary” include mirroring the descent of a coffin into the earth, rotating and canting angles in respect to characters’ sharp convulsions and, my personal favorite, tilt-shifting establishing shots to mimic Annie’s affinity for miniature models. It’s flashy, but not so much that it brings attention to itself in lieu of the story — every motion, swivel, dolly and lack thereof is justifiable and motivated.
The same can be said for the lighting, which not only utilizes the dichotomic shadows against the safety of a lightbulb, but paints the nighttime scenes with just the right gradient of moonlight or candlelight to indicate the complementary mood of the scene. I was especially impressed with its ability to invisibly and perfectly shift from the warm glow of a lamp to a total absence of light or comfort on the opposite end of the same room. Dollhouse indeed.
On that note, even, Annie’s profession plays unsubtly into the thematic commentary on familial hierarchies. The maternal relationship between the late grandmother and Annie’s daughter establishes not only a power dynamic, but a reliance from daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) to the grandmother, whose spirit may or may not still linger within the home. In avoiding spoilers, this does cause a rift between Charlie and Annie, a multi-generational estrangement from grandmother to mother and mother to daughter: What remains untouched are the fidelities of son Peter (Alex Wolff) and husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne).
Does Aster intend to support the subversion of the nuclear, paternal household as the norm? You could certainly make a case for it. Alternatively, its primary layer leans toward the kilter of a family torn apart. Interactions throughout uphold the notions of tense relations and the question of genuine affection between the members — another facet to the distinctions of reality or fantasy. As Annie’s dioramas envision the home as a miniature amalgam of plywood, glue and papier-mâché, its human counterparts are equally subject to the underlying, sinister creations of an unseen force crafting the vignettes of life in its own intangible workshop.
By the time the credits roll, Aster’s key points are not only made, but etched into your eyes, as the film accelerates uncontrollably from paranoia into unbound chaos, once again resisting the brakes on this nightmarish ride. What was once on the cusp of determining if the imagery was real is given little physical interpretation, and the peculiar ambiguity of the family tensions are fully explained. This isn’t to say there is one absolute reading of the whole story, and you may find yourself digging into the minutiae to edge closer to one conclusion or another, as I had. The important part is you arriving there yourself. Individualistic agency is a prospect I can’t much take for granted after seeing this film, which makes it all the more enjoyable to pick apart and detach myself from the characters in these many what-if scenarios — I scare easily, after all.
Of course, no film is perfect, and “Hereditary” is not without its flaws, however subjective they may be. Those I had seen the movie with soured to its gradual, albeit slow progression to the climactic finale. While I could not share this upset, it’s a common polarizer in the success of a film’s pacing. At the same time, if this movie had stayed ramped-up from a major narrative event within the first hour or so and prolonged that feeling without spacing, only exhaustion would remain. This is certainly no complaint from me, as the pacing is, in my opinion, as tightly motivated and rewarding as the script.
The only negative thing I could say about the film is sourced from my own bias against horror movies. I was turned off from the excess of gore and the camera’s persistence to it — I just can’t find enjoyment in watching something that is visually disturbing to the point where it becomes less about narrative substance and slides into the territory of shock for the sake of shock. This was only a real problem in the final hour of the movie, and even then, it’s hardly a problem: The artistic choice is simply not for me. Having said that, though, this horrifying imagery fits within the themes and motivations of the story quite well. With that in mind, we must come to a conclusion on “Hereditary” and its genre identity: horror or thriller?
"As Hitchcock metaphorized, is it better to have the bomb under the table explode for 15 seconds of surprise, or show it at the beginning and maintain 15 minutes of suspense?"
Anticlimactically, it’s not a decision for me to make, and even if it were, such a fine line between genres would be fundamentally challenging. While the movie carries itself superbly without clichés or tropes to be found, I felt a greater sense of despair for the dramatic stages of grieving Annie goes through than a fear for my own safety. The constantly dire atmosphere of the diegesis more closely resembles “The Witch” or “The Babadook” than any of the classic slashers or silent folktale films of the 20th century. In fact, the horror aspects of “Hereditary” could be completely stripped from the film, and the remaining drama would instill tendencies of the thriller nonetheless through Aster’s allegorical depictions of mental health and degradation. A reality, I’d say, is much scarier.
At its core, “Hereditary” is not only one of the most visually gorgeous films I have seen in recent memory, but it reflexively innovates itself away from the predictable formulas of either genre it could comfortably slip into. It knows what it is and what you’re expecting from a horror movie, then works with that to subvert both expectations and leave all with a refreshing sense of what it means to be scared. As Hitchcock metaphorized, is it better to have the bomb under the table explode for 15 seconds of surprise, or show it at the beginning and maintain 15 minutes of suspense? There’s no wrong answer, only what you’re looking to get out of it.