The best scene in Ari Aster’s Hereditary comes midway through the film, beginning when Annie Graham (the formidable Toni Collette) is stopped by a woman named Joan (Ann Down), whom she knows knows from her grief support group, outside of a crafts store. An artist and maker of autobiographical life-like miniature dioramas, Annie’s life has been completely turned upside down by the recent death of her mother, Ellen, and it’s affected her family — stern but loving father Steve (Gabriel Byrne), typical high school senior Peter (Alex Wolff), and the odd and artsy Charlie (Milly Shapiro) — in ways too difficult to discern.
Joan claims to have been taught a way to communicate with the dead, specifically her drowned grandson, by a medium, and that she’s willing to help her communicate with someone. Of course, being a reasonable person, Annie doesn’t believe in that kind of hokum, but Joan insists she come with her, and she does so. What follows, when they reach her apartment, is a sequence of pure and unadulterated magic, kind of unexpectedly scary, kind of funny, and deeply moving, all grounded in Collette’s pure wonder at what she’s seeing.
To say more would to be a shame, but it represents a massive peak for the film that Aster can’t ever equal, and it was the moments after that sequence that my feelings on Hereditary shifted away from the general consensus — that it is a capital-G Great horror film as well as a thought-and-felt study of intergenerational trauma — and towards something a little more negative. The film has two-thirds of an incredible era-defining genre film buried within it, both in style and in substance, before it gives way to one of the most uninspired and unsurprising final acts, accompanied by the realization of a telegraphed and terrible twist, in the boutique horror subgenre’s recent history. My love for that build-up is only matched by my utter disappointment in the ending, which unfortunately I can’t really talk about, given that it is, you know, the ending of the film, but I will try my best to articulate a couple of my issues with it.
Let’s continue along with the positives: Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski have created a visual aesthetic — centered around those dioramas that Annie crafts — that is so well-realized you’d be astonished to realize that this is Aster’s first feature, given that it’s heads and shoulders above most of his contemporaries. Look no further than the desperately creepy opening shot for further proof of this, in which Pogorzelski’s camera slowly pans across Annie’s studio, as it settles on a large model of the house that the Graham family inhabits and begins a slow zoom into one of the rooms which only stops when Steve enters in order to wake Peter up in time for his grandmother’s funeral.
That look carries over to a number of shots, and it adds to the creepiness as well as a central thematic conceit — that people are fated to fulfill their destinies, one way or another, guided about by fate or genetics or whatnot, like how Annie poses her little figures in their little rooms. There’s a direct allusion to the “tragic flaw” that’s found in the protagonists of classical Greek tragedy in one of Peter’s high school classes early on in the film, which, as is with a lot of scenes set inside of a school, is a perfect chance for Aster to state the meaning of his film as bluntly as possible, so that it hangs over our heads as we watch our characters head towards their pre-ordained fates.
Annie, as it would seem from the first two-thirds, is our tragic hero here, as the film documents her descent into madness despite her attempts to stave it off. Collette is deserving of every single bit of effervescent praise that she’s received, as she’s able to spin gold from the material Aster has given her. The same is true for the rest of the cast — Shapiro is effortlessly creepy and gets at the desperately relatable heart of what it means to be an odd and awkward child, and Byrne is given to moments of shocking vulnerability. She brings an honest truth and a rawness to a character who, on the page, might read as stolid and immovable as Oedipus or Antigone‘s Creon, but she makes Annie crackle with absolute electricity.
There’s a scene she shares with Wolff (who should have probably been nicer to young Jeff Dahmer when he had the chance) where she just opens a vein and lets slip the pain of motherhood, which also will read differently, perhaps, on your second viewing. Collette gives this film her all every step of the way, and manages to make the character compelling, even though we don’t really get much insight into her or the rest of the family. It’s a shame that her stellar work is vaguely betrayed by its ending, which sees a perspective shift that makes it clear it wasn’t just her story the whole time.
That final twist keeps Hereditary from being as good as it could be, and it isn’t just because of the bait-and-switch that A24 has fooled you with once again (though I can imagine fewer people being as mad about the misleading advertising here than with Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night), it’s because Aster wants his big Wicker Man third act, and doesn’t totally know how to get there. As such, he starts throwing every thing he can at you — J-horror climbing on walls, nude old people, maggots, and the kind of Where’s Waldo spot-the-spooky-thing jumps the you’ll often see in arthouse I-can’t-believe-it’s-still-a-horror-movie works — and gets diminishing returns with each and every dilatation of that masterful tension he crafts earlier in the film. It just brings everything to a bombastic conclusion that just doesn’t jive with the whole, and it really stops being scary at that point. Yes, that’s right: I didn’t find the end of this film that frightening for whatever reason (probably because when we dip into those horror cliches, you can start to see where they’re leading), and I’m a huge chicken.
So, I’m sad to say, Hereditary isn’t the scariest film of all time, or the most fucked-up, or the craziest film since The Exorcist like we’ve been hearing for the last couple of months. It is a supremely chilling horror film, but one that loses sight of its own special nature and its single best feature — the talents of its terrific cast — in the home stretch. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good film, or that one that you might find particularly horrifying and it is definitely one that will perhaps make a shit-load of money for its distributor, but to say the experience is somewhat underwhelming, after all that is a rough understatement.
Occasionally, I wonder if A24’s social media-heavy and stunt-filled marketing campaigns ultimately hurt the films that they release, and that they set-up unrealistic expectations for their audience members. I know it’s taboo to write about this kind of stuff when you’re writing reviews, but to totally divorce Hereditary from its lavish praise from festival-attending critics and carnival-barker challenges to the audience is to deny an essential part of the experience of seeing the film. Heart-rate monitors are being strapped to the wrists of viewers so that they can tell you that seeing Hereditary puts enough stress on your circulatory system that it’s somewhat like going for a two-hour run, tchotchkes are being sold on Etsy — all you need now is a Taco Bell cup-topper so you can slurp your Mountain Dew out of the top of Toni Collette’s wailing head, and the full on transformation of the boutique distributor into the self-hype-consumed, Phantom Menace-era Lucasfilm is complete.