Director: Ari Aster
Cast: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Bryne
The scariest aspect of Ari Aster’s Hereditary is its strong emotional quotient – it is unsettling, incoherent and disturbing, but also fundamentally affecting on a personal level. There is a constant feeling that the characters can’t believe they’re stuck in a ghastly horror movie. They can’t believe they’re going through what they are. Every time the camera settles in on their stunned faces when they see something bizarre, the scene almost never plays through. The moment never realizes itself. It cuts to a parallel setting, or the next one, and leaves us just about as disoriented as the potential victims.
Maybe that’s the central conflict too – the Graham family struggles with natural setbacks like grief, dysfunction, resentment and distance, but their real battle is with the higher forces that want to turn them into a supernatural-horror motif. In essence, they are humans fighting against their (genre) heritage – they want to be in control of their own destiny rather than fall prey to something passed onto them by previous generations that might have sworn by exorcism and other dated textbook mediums. They would rather make for a complex portrait of heartbreak than inexplicable products of ritualistic hell.
The bigger force is hinted at in the very first frame – a long, future-classic shot that starts with the view of a tree-house from inside a window and glides across an empty room to reveal this cabin’s miniaturist version; it zooms into the same bedroom within the dollhouse, and the action begins. Which is to say, we are entering a world that is merely a “scene,” the main location, in context of the story to follow. This story, too, isn’t of an absoluteness we are trained to expect. Usually, most films “start” with normal, unsuspecting people and gradually descend into chaos till they “end”. But Hereditary unfurls like we are joining a story already underway; it started long back, and things are already a bit strange. The mood is already quite bleak. Each member has enough baggage to inform our understanding of his or her immediate history.
And it’s a death that sucks us in. The Grahams – father Steve (Gabriel Bryne), mother Annie (Toni Collette, evoking her The Sixth Sense days), son Peter (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (a spooky Milly Shapiro) – prepare to attend the funeral of Annie’s mother. Annie’s speech, as well as her outburst at a grief management session later, reveals that the old lady was estranged, demented, distant and weirdly attached to little Charlie. All has never been right with Charlie either; her body is fragile, and she is anti-social and confused, almost like her shield has been taken away. She is not your typical horror-movie kid; it feels like she is resisting being that way. There are symbols on her wall, and she fills her drawing book with “retarded” versions of the people she sees. She also has a tongue-clicking tick, and is allergic to nuts.
Her older brother Peter is a dope head, a boy who is on the verge of entering his own high-school-underdog flick; there is friction between Annie and him, which will soon define the conflicted core of the movie. When tragedy strikes the family one night, it sets into motion a chain of events that seems to be consuming each of them in no systematic order. It’s only appropriate that this coincides with the entry of The Handmaid’s Tale’s brilliant Ann Dowd – who kick-starts an equally unnerving sub-thread to support Annie’s broken motherhood. You can’t help but think that it’s a matter of time before one, or all, of them implodes. The stress enforced upon them is relentless, and what’s frightening is that there is no forthcoming solution or prospect of heroism.
The primal sort of fear we then feel is the result of being in their shoes, of not knowing what will come next as well as simultaneously being able to tell that it will be something terrifying and unexplained. Even the jump scares are psychological
The most striking part of Hereditary is the way it has been shot. By this I don’t mean the loopy ghost-like cinematography, but the perspective Aster employs to ‘deconstruct’ his own narrative. At different points it’s either Annie or Peter or Charlie that look like protagonists of the film – the camera spends time with them separately as if they were runners in a relay race of slow-burning horror, letting us digest the anomalies from their eyes, and never explaining to us what happens in the house when they’re not present. The primal sort of fear we then feel is the result of being in their shoes, of not knowing what will come next as well as simultaneously being able to tell that it will be something terrifying and unexplained. Even the jump scares are psychological.
Movie characters can rarely ever tell if they’re part of a movie plot – a “look” that Aster masters by keeping us in agony about being unable to tell where the evil really lies. We sense a constant tug-of-war between a moving family drama and outlandish cult-centric thriller. On most occasions, just as we begin to invest into the vulnerable spiritual state of a group fraught with uncertainty, the penny drops – and we’re reminded of just how futile our cinematic conditioning can be.
Even to depict the concept of time lapsing, the establishing shot of the cabin at night abruptly cuts to morning (and vice versa) – as if light and darkness were “settings” introduced with a simple flick of a switch. This makes the space look like it’s the private playground of a higher power: a possibility reflected in Annie’s profession as an obsessive miniaturist artist. Just like a writer finding release in words, she explores her own psyche by manually recreating the most defining moments of her life on a tinier scale – this, despite having a therapist for a husband.
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Many of these clever allegories, as well as a wildly surreal climax, are reminiscent of Drew Goddard’s modern horror classic, The Cabin In The Woods (2012). Not so much stylistically – Hereditary is made like American Beauty on muscle relaxers – but in terms of self-awareness and reactionary writing. Goddard’s ingenious plot, which involved a bunch of corporate “atmosphere makers” regulating the fate of unsuspecting genre puppets through hidden cameras, was a sardonic critique of not just a stale cinematic culture but also the elitism of its critics.
It was designed as one giant wink at contemporary ‘internet-age’ genre junkies who are far too informed and fan-boyish for today’s filmmakers to get away with derivative trash. So Goddard and writer Joss Whedon staged this crucial moment – the crossroads of the shifting landscape of American horror cinema – by designing its pattern into a full-blown meta movie. It had naysayers who mocked the foundations of this genre turning into clichés who became victims of it. In the end, they still managed to maintain a balance of pulp-fiction that kept their vision from becoming a parody – integrating the idea of old-school horror even into the disintegration of it.
Aster, too, skillfully manages to do the same. Except, he chooses tragedy over satire to make his point. He subverts a few stereotypes by reinforcing them, willing us to recognize that this particular landscape can be inventive without laughing at itself. In some of his interviews, he mentions that he has riddled the film with clues so as to not put viewers completely in the dark about its momentum. But I believe he knows that it’s very probable that we might overlook these signs, and that the internet will be full of conspiracy theorists who might get closer to decoding it than regular moviegoers. Perhaps he aims to punctuate his film by creating this conversation around its (often arrogant) lack of exposition.
At times, it might even feel like there are too many dots to join (“art-house” alert), and we find ourselves choosing between having to be affected by the individuality of a scene or comprehend its hidden undertones. Either way, this sense of displacement by ignorance is a compelling one. Our rational desire to want clear-cut answers is matched by our irrational desire to be overwhelmed by the lack of them. It makes Hereditary one of the rare enigmatic experiences you’d rather not entirely understand. And I’ll be damned if I have to re-watch it to truly get it. Damnation, after all, is this film’s only ambition.
(Note: The version playing in Indian cinemas is brutally censored, ruining a film that already thrives on a degree of ambivalence. So choose your medium accordingly.)