Ari Aster comes out swinging with his feature length directorial debut and defines a new standard for the horror genre. The depiction of excruciating grief in Hereditary will depress and frighten you in the best way possible.
Written & Directed by Ari Aster
Starring Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, and Milly Shapiro
Rated R, for horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use, and brief graphic nudity
Released June 8, 2018
“I just don’t want to put any more stress on my family…”
Ari Aster defined a new standard for horror with his feature length debut, Hereditary. It showcases great performances, captivating cinematography, innovative sets, and shows us a fresh take on an old formula.
Most importantly, it’s loaded with subtext.
You could pause this film every five seconds and have a discussion about what you just saw. This attention to detail, and flawless execution of the depiction of grief is what’s earned Aster such high praise. Hereditary isn’t just scary because of its inclusion of typical horror motifs, but because of what its characters are going through, and how they handle it.
It’s a supernatural story that feels very real.
Hereditary is about a family’s life in the wake of their grandmother’s passing. Their ambivalence turns to stress, which turns to grief, which turns to agony…
…which turns to hell.
Secrets from the grandmother’s past present themselves and a sinister plot, that was set in motion long ago, begins.
Every frame of Hereditary is crafted with skill, but there are four standout sequences that elevate this film from good, to great.
“My mom died a week ago, so I’m just here for… trying it.”
First, there’s the scene where Annie decides to speak at the support group. She’s reluctant at first, but then she lets it all out. She goes into great detail about her relationship with her mother. The monologue exposes Ellen’s toxic presence while she was alive, and foreshadows her toxic presence after death.
This monologue is great for a number of reasons.
Toni Collette is great. It feels very relatable. It calls to mind feelings, or memories, of a family member whose mania seriously hurt our families in some way.
This scene eloquently presents exposition. Writers, too often, cram messy, unnatural dialogue into their scripts in order to get their audience up to speed. The plethora of information revealed in the support group scene needed to be explained one way or another. Aster could have chosen to use flashbacks, or have the characters bring it up awkwardly in conversation, but he chose to do it this way…
… which was the right way.
Not only does it feel natural, but we see firsthand the impact that Annie’s childhood had on her, and Collette’s performance, as a daughter and mother, telling this story to a group of strangers, adds to it so much. She’s forced to show restraint, and almost be apologetic for taking the time of others. She’s trying so hard to remain intact and not appear hysterical. This scene has even more meaning when you watch the film a third or fourth time. After the story ends, we fully understand what Ellen was mixed up in. When Annie talks about how her brother claimed Ellen was trying to “put people inside of him,” we interpret it to mean that Ellen was controlling, unhinged, and irrational as a mother. After we learn the lore about King Paimon, all is revealed. It has a much more literal meaning.
“It hurts too much, I just need to die.”
The next standout sequence revolves around the death of Charlie. It’s a very heavy scene. Her death in and of itself is nothing short of shocking, but the lens stays on Peter. We’re forced to stare into Peter’s face for a perfectly uncomfortable amount of time and it really forces reflection. At dawn, when Peter’s lying in bed, paralyzed with guilt, fear, shame, grief, what have you, and we hear the voice and sounds of Annie getting ready in the morning, and heading out to her car to run an errand, it makes you sick. It so perfectly depicts the feeling of guilt and dread, and waiting for someone to find out what you’ve done. It’s honestly a difficult emotion to describe and it’s never been depicted on screen like this.
“Just hold my hand, hold on.”
During the second act of the film, we watch this family grieve. From Annie’s escapist miniatures that she creates to separate herself from the tragedies, to Peter’s panic attack under the bleachers, to the blowout at the dinner table, Toni Collette and Alex Wolff knock it out of the park. Their performances are so believable, passionate, and tear-jerking.
“I did everything they told me not to do, but it didn’t work. I’m happy it didn’t work.”
The most moving scene in the film comes when Annie sleepwalks into Peter’s room. We learn earlier, in a disturbing monologue, that Annie woke up once many years ago standing above her sleeping children with a lit match and a can of paint thinner in her hand. When she awoke she could see that her children were dosed in the liquid. Later in the film, Annie follows a trail of ants into Peter’s room. At this point we don’t know she’s sleepwalking.
The scene is so brutally sad, and scary.
The way she wakes up, unaware of how she got there, and the hysterical Peter, make it very chilling. Independent of its relation to the plot, the scene explores the idea of a mother who didn’t want to be one.
How do you have that conversation with your child? Do you?
It explores the notion that maybe the child is better off dead than being brought into the world. We see this too, in Beloved (1998), when Sethe decides to kill her children rather than have them thrust into slavery. It’s a heavy topic, one which prompts a deep discussion, but watch how Aster uses horror genre tools to depict why it’s so disturbing. Hereditary is billed as a horror movie, but at its core, it’s a domestic melodrama. Like Jeremy Saulnier with Green Room (2016), Aster uses horror as a device to tell a great story and make it extreme.
Horror movies often tell the stories of cults, and in fact I think we’ve seen a rise in these types of stories. In Hereditary, the family is trapped in the traditions of a satanic cult. When you go back and watch the movie, even though the story focuses on the family it’s told through the perspective of the cult, and you can see that they were in control the whole time.
The Graham family never had a chance.
With narratives like this, the storytellers have two choices. They can present a story in which the protagonist is the rational character, that we, the audience relates with. The antagonist is the cult, which persecutes the protagonist. The cult believes in magic, or fantasy and that’s why they do their deeds, but the magic is not real. It’s still real life. These are stories about rational characters trying to save themselves from crazy ones. There are more rules in these types of stories, and they’re more about resilience. We see this type of cult-themed horror in movies like Ti West’s The Sacrament (2013), and Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation (2015).
Ari Aster chose the second option of telling a cult-themed narrative, which is to make the voodoo of the cult legitimate. This is dangerous, because it allows the narrative to be completely void of reality. You have to be extra careful to avoid creating plot holes and ludicrously unbelievable ideas. Despite the danger, Aster pulled it off with Hereditary, and has laid the foundation for a monumental filmography to come.