Look, I don’t know anyone who is actually happy, so the characters of Ari Aster’s Hereditary, who wander listlessly through a thick air of anhedonia and despair, all holding onto vague ambitions that barely incentivize the process of getting up in the morning, spoke to me. Yet given that the film’s opening title card details an obituary to the Graham family’s grandmother, it comes as a bit of surprise that the family isn’t completely wracked by grief. Instead, the family – matriarch Annie (Toni Collette), patriarch Steve (Gabriel Byrne), son Peter (Alex Wolff), and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) – leave and return from the funeral with the same requisite emotional discomfort that one imagines of any other family outing. The family resumes their activities in the separate chambers of their massive colonial home, as the day retreats without protest, with Annie left to wonder why she isn’t more despondent about the loss of her mother. The answer, as it were, is a complicated one.
Aster, in his debut, invites you to imagine the unimaginable in a series of utterly devastating sequences that come to grips with one horrific loss after another. At the center is Annie, an accomplished miniatures artist who compresses her woe into her artwork, constructing ornate dollhouses and scenes that remark on the loss of her mother and their tumultuous relationship. She’s the film’s emotional nucleus, a complex, unsettling force that recalls Julie Christie’s Laura Baxter in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Like most parents, she insists on putting up a front, funneling her anxieties through her work. She’s incapable of expressing herself to her family. Instead, Annie takes to a grief support group (she tells Steve that she’s going to see a movie), whereupon she confesses her truth: that she, and she alone, must shoulder the grief of generations of misfortunes. It’s an unjust and incessant burden of suffering that Annie endures and regrettably it only intensifies as the film moves along.
The sequence that serves as the major narrative catalyst could be described as sleekly efficient if it weren’t so obliterating, as we observe Peter and Charlie embark upon a series of misfortunes that, again, serve to recall the opening passages of Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (it goes without saying that Roeg’s film serves as a major tonal and thematic influence on Hereditary, with other passages of the film reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Robert Eggers’ The Witch). It’s the sequence that follows, as we observe Peter’s wide-eyed terror at going to bed and the subsequent screams of horror that comes with the approaching morning. It’s a devastating moment in a film loaded with misery and violent emotion.
The icy chill of dread intensifies as we begin to piece together more of the, shall we say, unpleasant relationship between Annie and her son. Unfortunately, given that Peter is more or less characterized as a stoner teenager, it’s here where the film begins to teeter, as Annie’s attempts to rationalize and come to grips with the brutal death of her daughter are coopted by a thinly sketched character. The film does divert, observing a relationship between Annie and Joan (Ann Dowd), a member of the grief support group she attended earlier in the film. It’s a relationship built on loss, but it becomes increasingly obvious that Joan’s motives are much more sinister.
Which brings us to a conclusion that I’m still struggling to endorse. It’s effect, a descent into the bowels of a hellscape, are undeniable in their capacity to produce that sweaty-palmed sense of anxiety. Yet I’m not entirely convinced that the film’s competing commentaries on motherhood, stymied upbringings, and demonic pedagogy are bridged effectively. Leaving the end to register as a bit too hectic and simplistic at the same time. But the qualities here, from Aster’s ceaseless, braggadocios direction to Colin Stetson’s arrangements to Toni Collette’s capital B Big performance, all elevate Hereditary to become more than the sum of its parts. This film weighs heavily on my spirit in part because it implicates you within its framework. It’s one of those all too rare horror films that does not bargain with you or offers a way out. Unlike John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, which renders a lot of its more novel ideas through a blasé formal, narrative, and visual framework, Hereditary isn’t doing the same old shit. It is fundamentally the highest praise you can afford a film.