With the creation of Hereditary, Ari Aster crafted a piece of pure horror, that will strongly resonate will all those who have experienced hardships at home, and with family members. I heard many reports that Hereditary was extremely disturbing, and left viewers in shock, even leading some to leave the cinema during the screening. This meant that, even before watching any trailers, I thought I had a solid idea of what to expect. I thought I was prepared. I can tell you now that it was nothing like I expected, and that there is no such thing as preparation for this movie. It was shocking and disturbing like everyone said, but it was so much more than I had bargained for.
*Please be aware that the rest of this review contains spoilers for Hereditary*
A movie with layers is always more enjoyable. It gives the impression that the filmmaker has trust in the viewer, and believes in their ability to keep track of a complex plot. Hereditary was a movie which possessed (no pun intended) this quality. We, as the viewers, aren’t spoon fed information, which makes it into an experience, rather than just a movie. On the surface, it displays itself as a generic physchological thriller/horror with plenty of gruesome imagery. But when you peel back that layer, you get a raw portrayal of a fractured family. Mental illness and trauma are a huge part of the ‘horrific’ nature of this movie. We can become desensetized to horror, because we tell ourselves it is pure fiction. The incorporation of real and relevant themes, bridges the gap between reality and fiction. We can no longer hide under a safety blanket. The recurring theme of mental illness also means that the viewer can interpret two totally different versions. It could be interpreted as exactly what it seems to be, a disturbing movie about a creepy cult, which is a completely reasonable interpretation. On the other hand, Annie’s (portrayed by Toni Colette) spiral into madness and Peter’s (played by Alex Wolff) confrontation with evil spirits could be seen as an elaborate metaphor for what trauma does to a person.
The interactions between Annie and her son, Peter are some of the most tense moments in the movie. They’re akward, blunt, and lack the love we typically ascossiate with familial bonds. Later in the movie we see the shocking events that have created a rift between the pair. Annie covered Peter and his sister in paint thinner, when she was allegedly sleepwalking, and ‘woke up’ just as she was about to set them on fire. This shattered whatever relationship him and his mother still had left. I was skeptical of Annie, when this incident was mentioned. It seemed plausible, with her family’s history, that she could have dissociated (instead of what she claimed to be sleepwalking). This mistrust in Annie was masterfully orchestrated by the filmmakers. Right from the start, we see that each member of the family is typically secluded, which I believe lends itself to Annie’s family’s private nature. We see a real divide, almost as if the family is split into teams. Charlie and her deceased grandmother, Peter and his father, and Annie all by herself. Annie eventually finds out she can ‘conjure’ Charlie’s spirit, after the accident that tragically kills (and decapitates) her. She seems to believe this discovery will bring the family closer together, but it ends up doing the exact opposite. The seance opens a gate for malicious spirits (which are continuesly hinted towards previously). Her good intentions regarding Charlie, put Peter in harm’s way.
Charlie is the most prominent character in most of the promotional material for this film. This leads you to assume that she will be the protagonist all the way through. This is correct to some extent, as she keeps being mentioned and her death ties into the plot, but it does create some confusion when she is horifically killed around 30 minutes into the movie. We are made aware that Annie’s mother always wished for a boy (because King Paimon, a demon, could only fully inhabit a male body), but she was satisfied with Charlie for some time. When Charlie dies, and Annie’s connection with Peter is severed completey, he is vulnerable to possession. In this way, Peter is the real protagonist of the story. He struggles with a huge amount of trauma, and clearly has not found a healthy way to cope, as his mother is a constant reminder of the incidents. We see him smoking weed at multiple points in the movie and it even plays a role in his sister’s death. He wasn’t with her when she ate the nut cake, so he couldn’t spot the signs of her severe allergic reaction on time. This could be trying to push the message: if we don’t let ourselves heal, we’ll hurt ourselves even further. Peter used an unhealthy coping mechanism, which indirectly caused the death of his sister, hurting him and his family. Alex Wolff gives a haunting performance, effectively executing the reactions of a teenager in a terrifying and traumatising circumstance. Nearer to the start of the movie, he bottled up all of his emotions, often staring blankly into the distance and avoiding commotion. Later, when it becomes clear the situation is escalating, his feelings flood out. He screams, cries, rolls around and pleads. He shows that he is in real, physchological, pain This is wildly uncomfortable to watch on screen, but for me that’s proof of an astounding performance.
The ending sequence felt slightly rushed, but in my opinion that is forgivable, considering Peter’s mental state at the time. His father was just burned alive, and his mother sawed her own neck off in front of him. That would cause anyone to be in a blind state of panic, and feel overwhelmed. It felt like a conscious creative decision to cram all of the final events together, rather than a fault. All of the cult imagery that lured in the background is compiled together, fitting the pieces of the story together like a giant puzzle. There are still some pieces missing, but those are where the viewer is able to insert their own interpretation. In some areas, the movie is vague on purpose, because it wants you to think. There are so many hints and clues, relating to the involvement of the cult, hidden throughout the film. It simply begs for a second viewing, to find some more of the puzzle pieces. Aditionally, watching the movie with the ending in mind gives you an entirely new perspective.
Hereditary is by far one of the most heartbreaking, yet horrifying, movies I’ve seen. As well as the excellent cinematography, the soundtrack did a huge service to the film. It accompanied the actors performances, and grotesque images perfectly. Even though I’d like everyone to see this work of art, it is definitely not one for the light-hearted. This cocktail of traumatising imagery, untamed emotion and stunning camera-work is definitely worth the watch for anyone who wants to have a heavy heart for a couple of days.
– The Whiz