The film tells the story of a dysfunctional family, revolving around a frustrated miniature artist named Annie (Toni Collette). At the beginning of the movie, Annie grieves her mother’s death. They were estranged until her mother started suffering from dementia. Annie’s not overwrought by the death but experiences spooks while in her workshop one night.
Her loved ones surround her without being emotionally present. Her son Peter (Alex Wolff) simply wants to fit in at school and is convinced that his mother dislikes him. Hailing from the legacy of creepy horror movie kids, her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), who had been close to her late grandma, is somewhat…disturbed, fashioning dolls out of trash and dead birds. Meanwhile, her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) tries his best to keep his family together. Another tragedy soon strikes, which more or less tears Annie’s loved ones apart. (My question is, does no one think of asking for an EpiPen or keeping spare ones around?) The stages of grief, as the film would have it, include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, of course, demonic possession.
The sound and visual designs in this project fascinate me. While the film didn’t scare me per se, it left me feeling sick to my stomach. During its tensest moments, we hear faint thumping sounds, as though our hearts were beating along to the movie (and they probably were). There’s also distance between those who are experiencing the film and those inside of the film. At times, the characters sound echo-y and far away while we hear ingratiating fly buzzes and unsettling footsteps coming closer and closer to us. And the movie’s jump scares aren’t so much cheap, dime a dozen jump scares as much as slow burns that leave you with a general uneasiness for most of the scene, even after the worst has happened.
Visually, the film is shot on digital, but there must have been post-processing magic that gives you the same glowy, grainy texture of film. This made gory moments (lots of headless bodies, just FYI) feel even creepier than they already were. In terms of set design, Aster draws parallels between Annie’s dollhouses and the actual house, which becomes a trap for the characters who, like dolls, are being controlled by an ominous higher being. The cinematographers employ many high angle shots, which instill the viewer with an unsettling sense of voyeurism and helplessness as they witness horrible things happen over and over again to the characters.
I also love Toni Colette and Ann Dowd in Hereditary. Toni Colette films have been one of the reasons why I love movies so much. Little Miss Sunshine and About a Boy introduced me to a world of cinema that was optimistic, kind, and utterly unpretentious. (This film is the opposite, but, you know, still love Colette.) Ann Dowd, on the flip side, has taken my breath away each week in her role as Aunt Lydia in the unsettling dystopian Hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale. Both Colette and Dowd stand out in this film. Colette has the strongest moments in the film (up to the frustrating third act), which range from her aching confession in grief group therapy to her hysteria upon learning what happens to her daughter. Dowd’s character felt most believable to me…until she became a device for the convoluted demonic possession plot. Her character, a bereft woman in Annie’s group therapy who lost her son and grandson, felt warm, genuine, sincere. I would have liked to see this relationship further fleshed out. Really, her character’s backstory fleshed out.
Hereditary is an interesting tale, potentially about mental health or misogyny or family dysfunction. The themes of the film never fully congealed for me, though perhaps that’s what Aster was going for. Still, it’s possible to raise questions in a movie while still delimiting its themes. That’s not to say that different themes can’t emerge for different people—it would just be nice if it had a general sense of direction and a tighter message. On that note about themes, many horror films are ultimately tied to the process of grief somehow, like Get Out or The Babadook. Those films devote time to flesh out their protagonists and their relationships with their family (slash society). In Get Out, it is Chris’ relationship with his mother. In The Babadook, it is the bereaving Amelia’s with her precocious son. In Hereditary, it’s Annie’s with her mother and daughter.
But we don’t know much about those relationships, other than that they’re strained. This movie doles out context with restraint, predominantly absorbing audiences with its striking visual language and allegorical flourishes. When it provides context, it does so in bursts. All of the relevant information with regards to family history and demonic possession got crammed into the third act, which felt unnecessarily overwhelming.
Ultimately, I enjoyed Hereditary. It’s a very experiential film tied to allegory and lore, which are cleverly externalized through telling shots, body horror visuals, and creepy sounds. That said—and I recognize that this may be a personal preference—its lofty allegories could have benefited from more coagulation–more character development, exposition, perhaps even a driving theme.