This contains full spoilers for Hereditary.
Stephen King famously dislikes Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. As I watched Hereditary I thought a lot about King’s problems with the portrayal of Jack Torrance in that movie: “When we first see Jack Nicholson, he’s in the office of Mr. Ullman, the manager of the hotel, and you know, then, he’s crazy as a shit house rat. All he does is get crazier.”
There’s something similar happening with Toni Collette’s Annie in Hereditary. By the end of the movie she’s a raging crazy person in boots and a nightgown, but it’s not that much of a distance from where she starts out at the beginning of the film. Now, I know that’s part of the point – much of what writer/director Ari Aster is doing in this movie is talking about the transmission of generational trauma – but what this means functionally is that Collette, and the movie around her, very quickly get to 11 on their amplifiers. This is a movie that gets broad very fast, and as a result I spent a lot of time not quite sure if I should be laughing as much as I was.
Every emotion in Hereditary is so BIG, which makes them all stand out in Aster’s quiet, carefully composed frames. The psychological trauma that haunts this family is so big as to be ridiculous, and it all becomes even more ridiculous when it’s played so seriously, in such lengthy po-faced sequences. By the time the reveal happens at the end – this was all a witch conspiracy! – the supernatural explanation actually feels less out there than the broad, campy emotional stuff that had been happening for the previous two hours.
I saw someone compare Hereditary to a South Korean movie, and that’s a pretty good way of looking at it – the tonal shifts are huge, but always played straight. You’re never sure if a certain scene is meant to be hilarious or if it’s just that the camera is lingering on an ant-covered severed head way way way too long. Everything in Hereditary is heightened except the shooting and editing style; Aster opts for longer shots and long scenes that feel like they take a few seconds too long to exit. It’s very STATELY.
Which is what adds to the ridiculousness. Watching a headless body float up a ladder into a treehouse that bleeds red light (returning to the womb?) becomes silly when the camera is nailed down with everything composed just so right, like one of the dollhouse dioramas that Collette’s Annie makes. I have to give Aster enough credit to assume that he knows he’s making something as campy as he has made, and that the po-faced nature of the film is a key element of that campiness.
He is certainly good at creating horror imagery that will be iconic for a generation. He (and his cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski) do incredible things with darkness; as someone who suffers from night terrors I was amazed at how they capture that liminal moment in the darkness when you aren’t sure if you’re seeing a coat on a chair or a slumped over person. These moments are all the more impressive for Aster’s tendency to linger on them – even as you’re spending a few seconds looking at the image you still can’t quite parse if there’s a person there or not (or more accurately there is and there is not a person there, all at the same time).
Personally I found these sequences to be more striking than terrifying; Hereditary is a movie full of signifiers of horror but little actual horror within it. Watching it reminded me of visiting some of the horror stores in Burbank’s “Black Hair Dye District,” stores full of corpses and killers and shrunken heads and other terror paraphernalia that looks awesome but doesn’t actually put a fright into you. Aesthetically I was enraptured by Hereditary, but on a primal level I was unmoved.
The family dynamics in the film are interesting – so interesting, in fact, that I wish they were a little less immediately batshit. I come from a background where I had a bad mother who also had a bad mother, and I truly recognize the ways intergenerational trauma get handed down (this has, in recent months, led me to new kinds of recovery programs that directly address what it’s like to be a family member of an alcoholic. Believe me, having your mother keep solid eye contact while sawing off her own head – I FEEL THAT), but there’s such an extremity to this family’s dysfunction that it’s hard to see it as anything other than a pantomime show. There’s no real normalcy to be found outside of Gabriel Byrne’s silently suffering father character, and the movie’s biggest joke is revealing at the end that he’s a psychiatrist.
Aster pulls a switcheroo on us; the movie seems to be focused on Charlie, played by Millie Shapiro. It’s a great performance, and while a lot of attention is focused on Colette (who DEMANDS attention in the role), I think Shapiro is the heart of the movie. Weird and creepy, Shapiro glides through scenes with a wonderful vulnerability that makes you feel for her while you also sort of are worried about her. When she gets taken out – her head hilariously knocked off in a sequence reminiscent of the danger Chewbacca faces in Solo’s train heist – the movie loses something. The focus shifts to her brother, played by Alex Wolff (who, Wikipedia tells me, is a child star from Nickelodeon). Where Charlie was fascinating and deep, Peter is pretty much a blank stiff.
When Charlie is gone Annie’s craziness crests to a new level. There’s definitely a movie to be made about the family dynamics at play here – Annie blames Peter for killing Charlie, and Peter feels unsafe around his mother because she tried to light him on fire in his bed this one time (!) – but Aster treats the dynamics as reveals. We don’t find out about the bed-lighting incident until fairly late in the movie, and it recontextualizes a lot of the stuff that we saw earlier (like Peter just laying in his bed listening to his mother scream over her daughter’s bloody headless corpse… goddamn, this movie is broad as hell).
Aster treats the family’s history as a mystery, but he should be treating the witchcraft as a mystery. Instead he gives us an info dump in the last ten minutes of the movie, and has the characters only get near the truth in the third act. If we had learned about the family’s gonzo history up front and then followed Annie’s search into her mother’s past the second act might feel more driven. As it is, the movie meanders for a solid 45 minutes in the middle.
It’s definitely overlong at two hours and seven minutes; I think there’s a very scary movie of about 100 minutes hidden in here, one where the third act ramps up. Aster doesn’t get much faster even as the movie reaches its climax, and the final fifteen minutes sees the movie floating towards inevitability. Which, of course, is the point – this is one of those movies where a high school English teacher explains some of the film’s themes to us while we watch Peter space out, and one of those themes is predestination – but I think there’s a more dramatic way to get there. Because Aster backgrounds the supernatural mystery (it’s still blazingly obvious from the first scenes, but only to us, not to the characters) we don’t feel like we’re headed towards an ending we have dreaded, and there’s no sense of earlier clues falling into place as Peter makes his way to the Paimon atrocity. Watching all the naked people bowing and scraping I wondered if there was a way to have included them in the film, not just have them show up at the funeral at the beginning – to give a sense of unsettling strangeness from side characters, allowing some space for the main family to be less insane all the time. This is a movie desperately in need of Gabriel Byrne cracking one single joke at the dinner table.
I know this all sounds negative, but I did truly enjoy Hereditary. I don’t know that I could recommend it to someone looking for a good horror movie, but if someone were looking for a weird ass art movie that has all the subtlety of a brick in the face while still managing to be a languorous two hours, this is the film for them. I think it’s a camp classic, and I was howling with laughter throughout, and I truly love it on that level. Watching Toni Collette’s Annie talk about the time she almost set her kids on fire – not quite owning it, sort of blaming someone else, having a teenager’s response to being held responsible – I realized that this whole movie is coming from that attitude. I enjoy that.