“You are an odd little soul. Very like your father . . . Still, one must take you as you are. It is in the blood; for indeed it is true that you can inherit these things[.]”
The private lives of our parents beget the scourge of genetic manipulation: Hereditary probes deeply into the spirit of man and arrives on the other side of man’s most basic instinct for worship. An impressive directorial debut from Ari Aster that spends more time on developing a story than manipulating the audience into emotional responses through gimmicks of sound and visual effects. To quote Richard Roeper:
“Hereditary” is one of those rare and treasured horror films that does not rely on “Gotcha!” music stings, or rhythmic knocks on the door in the dead of night, or the cat jumping into frame during a tense moment.
The film begins with the death of a matriarchal and reclusive figure who we learn was instrumental in supplying the genetic material and “sacrifice” for the deeply rooted emotional and neurological problems that the family would eventually inherit. Film Comment adds how she remains an “unseen force propelling the film along” inside a seeming ageless process. (See this Spoiler on the ending.) The mother (Toni Collette) and son (Alex Wolff) retain a semblance of normality. Distant but coping. The daughter (Milly Shapiro), less so; drawing people in the style of The Babadook and demonstrating a strange propensity for building dolls using (to say the least) odd objects.
The film builds slowly and methodically, at times allowing for the writing to offer generous developments that seem farfetched. The characters, likewise, slowly being drawn away from their day-to-day into a teeming labyrinth of psychological undoing: a mother with homocidal tendencies and a son unable to cope with the guilt of error. Mystery surrounds the plot. A father (Gabriel Byrne) receives strange phone calls that he keeps from his wife. A mother, who seemingly finds the need to lie in order to attend group therapy sessions. Unsolicited séances. Pathological problems. Aster does a fine job introducing these tidbits of plot throughout the film to add layers to the mystery.
Like Raw, Aster taps into a profound process of genetics as the compass for individual progress. Here, we have a film possessed with a rich harvest of creative design, challenging audiences to step away from the notion of free will and consider a state of determinacy. To quote A.O. Scott (NY Times), we may one day “sense that the creaky old machinery of horror can be adapted to new and exciting uses.” Many times we make decisions only to discover that those decisions have already been made by our ancestors. For better or for worse, there is depth in the knowledge that we may all be the byproducts of others. And as Hereditary demonstrates with unyielding effectiveness, we may all be the product of our dancing DNA and the music only gets louder. April Wolfe summarizes this theme well when she writes that “[t]he horror of Hereditary lays not just in scary images but in the creeping sense that free will is a joke, and bad luck can be as inescapable as a family curse.” The Dollhouses were important although that importance was difficult to capture aside from the issue of determinacy—Aster explains: “[t]hese are people who have no agency, and in the end, they are like dolls in a dollhouse.” I weirdly hopes that this would be an opportunity for something genuinely creative in the vein of Charlie Kaufmann’s Synecdoche, New York, but nothing came of it.
Toni Collette was exceptional and perhaps to no surprise given that her last Oscar nomination was for the Sixth Sense. Her fright and devolution took on a natural scale in no small measure given to the circumstances. I agree with Roeper: “she deserves best actress consideration for playing another mother trapped in another inexplicable, spine-tingling, seriously effed-up situation.” While appreciating the reference to some great films, I largely disagree with Simon Foster that Hereditary “has none of the storytelling craft that turns its premise from the supernatural, psychological malarkey it is into an important, resonant piece of horror-as-drama.” In fact, I suspect that this film will only drive the art form back to its finer days (e.g. Don’t Look Now, The Vanishing, The Tenant and more recently The Witch and It Follows) where finely written psychological storytelling took precedent over the noise pollution that horror films have become today.
And yet, something was left wanting. Something was left desired. And at moments, boredom became the only natural response. As Nick Schager (Daily Beast) writes: “Prepare to wait… and wait… and wait some more to be terrified.” I felt very little of the film stimulated a novelty worthy of unconditional praise and kept hoping something truly great was in the midst (it never really came). The convergence of the human day-to-day routines and the other “dark” assemblies proved in moments effective given the knowledge that the evil we know is oftentimes the evil that we never suspect. At the same time, these mundane sub-settings added little besides context for the characters devolving behavior.
James Berardinelli (ReelViews) has made some keen insights especially regarding the film’s logical problems and supernatural elements that “undermine Hereditary’s credibility and damage our ability to take the characters and their situations seriously.” Eric Kohn rightly echoes some of these concerns when he writes that the “movie occasionally falters when it veers into a few outlandish twists, and risks shrill extremes as Annie continues to freak out over new revelations.” I felt that it kept it together where mother! completely fell apart mainly because the dialogue remained compelling and the story fit well into the overall theme of man’s genetic proclivity.
Even with a running time in excess of 120 minutes, the film could have actually used another 30 minutes to bridge the present and the past in what would have been a finely tuned momentum into the eventual grand unfolding of adoration. A few more scenes to develop the underlying commitments of family members. A few more scenes to explain the occupational choices made by Aster and to dig deeper into the cross-comparison of the larger household to the scaled-down models as a metaphor for determinism. The mother’s own condition splintering from sociopathics to emotional instability. A few more scenes to organically bridge the here and thereafter. And a few more scenes to finally unfold what was an otherwise bristling finale.
While the film was solid and certainly worth watching, it felt like a victim of too high expectations.
NOTE: Aster said making his chilling spectacle would have been impossible without first watching “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.”