There’s a lot of grief in Hereditary and none of its characters know where to put it. It opens on the funeral of this family’s matriarchal grandmother. Toni Collette’s Annie struggles through her speech at the alter, trying to reconcile her mother’s abusive personality with the weight of her loss. Like, when the feelings that you feel don’t fit neatly into sadness where do they go?
It’s a horror movie, and more people are going to die before the running time ends. But this first death lays the groundwork. I mean, there’s a spooky little kid, played by newcomer to our screens Milly Shapiro, who don’t seem to be particularly acting right. As I said, it’s a horror movie. But as the film progresses in its languid way it teaches us that there’s more to be scared of in our minds that we don’t understand than be creeping around nighttime hallways.
They some good hallways though, the family’s mother is an artist. She works in miniatures, these intricate dioramas that she builds wearing those diamond appraiser’s magnifying spectacles. As she falls further into the depths of herself the art becomes steadily more haunted, more self-referential. They end up scattered around the house, grim reminders of the decent that they undertaking. The house itself is a puzzle, this strange combination of living rooms and dining rooms that never seem to fit together comfortably.
There’s too many dark corners here, too much space to lose yourself in. Yet the upstairs is home to the narrowest hallway possible and a bedroom configuration that isolates their inhabitants. Both allow director Ari Aster this tremendous play with the space. He likes to hold on images, maybe prod Pawel Pogorzelski’s camera around with this icy reserve. Teasing us with each corner we slide around. Either that, or he’ll strip away one of the walls so the characters seem to be participating in a ghoulish simulacrum of their own lives.
Just like those works of art innit? Okay. It’s a bit of an affectation. We’ll allow him it though, you only get one first feature.
And it’s not like the worst aesthetic to go with. Creepy is one of those tones that I don’t think we’ll ever get from Wes Anderson, so I can’t imagine us seeing this anywhere else. Look at Toni Collette’s Oscar scene here (alright, she has a few, but the most noteworthy one) She’s in this grief counselling session and the camera is way too far back in the room, and too high. This doesn’t seem like a circle of people it seems like an architectural form. As she talks and talks, about her troubled family and her childhood we push in and in. Before too long she is isolated in the frame and the silence and absence of support in the space is keen.
It’s a fucking powerhouse of a performance. One of those roles that you can only find in genre work because the majority of dramas tend to be too dour to ask their actors to do as much. Why not I suppose? You get an actor as fine as her it would be a shame not to ask them to do literally everything in the toolkit. She’s bouncing between states so vibrant that she becomes a concerning presence in her own right. Yet she never discards that innate wearied humanity that casts all her characters into relief (excepting maybe that one in xXx movie). It’s never too much, which it totally could be, and the film even lets her be kinda lowkey funny which is totally glorious.
Also I mentioned him in the review of My Friend Dahmer a couple weeks ago, but it’s worth doing so again. Alex Wolff continues to be great. The range that he’s been putting out recently is awesome, and he’s entrusted mostly here with pulling a constantly inventive range of terrified faces. They’re brilliant, and the way that he’s able to work being a wiry asshole teenage son around them is perfection. Gabriel Byrne completes the cast, basically the only one seeming to hold himself together. His dispassionate rationality, rather than helping, serves to drive a wedge between the others. And things never go well for sceptics in these types of movies.
That’s the water it’s playing in though. What is rational in grief? And is mansplaining mourning to your wife the best way to go about it? It doesn’t have to be a necessarily destructive force. I mean we know catharsis for a reason, it can be edifying. It can cleanse. This film is so perfect a showing how that can be diseased and perverted, how our own ill grasp on ourselves can lead to ruin.
Basically, it’s playing in such rich territory that when someone opens a book on the occult and sees a highlighted passage talking about the beginner’s guide to summoning Paimon, the demon king of hell (metal), you’re just like ‘Yeah, I suppose.’ it feels like a bit of a let down really. I’m thinking similar to the third act of last year’s David Bruckner joint The Ritual. Like, how that one was a compelling tale about toxic masculinity until it needed a monster to do some chasing.
I’ve been deliberately trying to talk around the plot a little here. Just because something happens about half an hour in which the trailers didn’t spoil and which takes the movie into an interesting place. Aster keeps building on things here, mounting the pressure at a rate which it just don’t find sustainable. It gets close though, and when it has hits its stride it contains bounds.
Hereditary is currently screening in UK cinemas
Image courtesy of A24