Hereditary is a film one should avoid describing in detail, as it would not only ruin surprises but also give the impression that you are describing a fever dream rather than a film. The movie sustains and resonates with a sense of dread throughout its first 90 minutes; the final 30 are off-the-rails in the best way. Writer/director Ari Aster structures his story in such a way that you’re never sure if what you’re seeing is reality or the fanciful imaginings of the Graham family, a family cursed by both supernatural forces and a genetic predisposition to certain mental illnesses.
Toni Collette stars as Annie Graham, a mother and artist struggling with the death of her mother while trying to finish an exhibition of diorama’s that appear to depict her life and internal state. Alex Wolff plays Annie’s son, Peter, a sad-eyed pothead lazily wafting through life. Milly Shapiro is Peter’s younger sister, Charlie, a clearly disturbed 13-year-old with the stare of a granite statue. Gabriel Byrne plays Annie’s stoic, kind husband Steve, who just wants the family to get along and struggles to keep the peace between the various members. All are reeling from the death of the family matriarch, who we learn was not exactly loved by the others. The family is adverse to frank displays of emotion; they seem utterly petrified to reveal their interiors to each other. For instance, Annie tells her husband she’s going out to the movies when she’s actually attending a grief management circle. Peter sedates himself with marijuana. Charlie draws obsessively in a notebook.
I’m trying to be as vague as possible here. It’s better for you to experience this film on your own. The deeper Hereditary dragged me into its depths, the happier I was that I knew next to nothing about it. Film literate in the extreme, Hereditary draws inspirations from various touchstones both within and without the horror genre. Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre tower over this film.
The characters that populate this film are strong-willed but deeply damaged people living in close-proximity, barely containing their torment until they erupt in displays of violent emotions that are as intense the bloodletting and surrealism. Unspeakable things happen to this family throughout. Every time they experience new trauma, it cracks their barely-controlled facades just a bit more, revealing the emotional scar tissue that is barely holding them together.
The regular eruptions of surrealist nightmare spectacle and visceral emotion populate the spaces where family arguments and mental or emotional breakdowns might occur in a more realistic film. The various family members speak to each other with the facade of considerate individuals; soon, however, you learn to spot the passive-aggressive digs and accusatory glances, the barbs disguised as concern. Whenever something bloody, bizarre, or merely unsettling happens, it seems to be in response to what the family refuses to address.
There are images of burned and mutilated flesh, mangled and bloated corpses, uncanny behavior by beams of light or reflections, and sound effects that seem to reverberate from the depths of your head. And yet, this film does not contain nearly as much violence as you might falsely remember when discussing it later; that said, what is there is shockingly physical and visceral. The emotional damage inflicted upon the Grahams is the true horror here, each new trauma more revolting than the last.
Aster continually intimates that something horrible could happen at any time (notice how any sharp object in the film gets its own ominous close-up), but when that something invariably happens, it’s usually more awful than you envisioned. This is because Hereditary is the rare horror film that shows how its characters deal with the trauma they’re experiencing; we see the Grahams lying in bed, still to the point of paralysis, overtaken by grief and depression. They nip and snap each other, trading biting words as petty and self-serving as they are true. They inflict damage that cannot be undone, just because they’re in so much pain that they need to see someone hurting worse.
The final act of Hereditary raises questions about the verifiable reality of everything that’s happening onscreen, but it makes sense considering the amount of time the script paid to the idea of the superstitious or inexplicable. It’s rare that a film so dedicated to horror seems genuinely interested in the more universal issues it raises. And yet, Hereditary is that film. At times, Aster seems to be attacking the very concept of rationality, scraping and clawing away to drag us back to a superstitious cave-mind that would stare up at the sky in the pouring rain, wondering what it had done to anger the gods. Aster, as well as cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, his lighting crew, and entire sound team deserve recognition for the creepy, chilling moments they manage to create. It’s been a long time since a film has had me checking over my shoulder hours later, searching for some sinister apparition or presence. Hereditary did that.