Film review | Hereditary

Aster’s film is a prime example of horror’s ability to remind us how, beneath the veneer of what we put up, the truth will always plunge us into the same place. Things can get ugly. But it’s an ugliness we all recognise • 4/5

Nothing so horrible as the truth
Nothing so horrible as the truth

The truth can often be tough to handle, and humans have proven themselves rather adept at coming up with mechanisms to sweep it under the rug and go on as normal for as long as they can muster, if said truth turns out to be both unpleasant and of undeniable relevance to one’s standing in the world.

But the problem with that kind of thing – as we’ve been trained to know, with some help from Freud – is that the repressed tends to return with a vengeance, often blowing up in our faces in the most woefully inconvenient way possible.

And the debut feature film by acclaimed short filmmaker Ari Aster, Hereditary – beloved by critics but apparently derided by that amorphous form, ‘the general public’ – succeeds in making a pungent and persistently haunting lemonade out of those lemons.

Serving as both writer and director to a film that has drawn comparisons to masterpieces such as The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, Aster certainly squeezes all the tears he can from his cast of characters – the Graham family, made up of miniaturist artist Annie (Toni Collette), her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), their 16-year-old son Steve (Alex Wolff) and his 13-year-old sister, Charlie (Milly Shapiro).

The tears come a lot later than expected, however. Even though the film opens with a funeral – that of the family matriarch, Annie’s mother Ellen – there is a distinct lack of emotion hanging over the proceedings. Annie doesn’t cry for her mother – even feeling a sense of relief that she’s gone – and neither does the rest of the family show much emotion in the wake of her passing. We come to understand that the woman was difficult to be around. That her struggle with mental illness devoured her loved ones. That she was an overbearing parent to Annie and an even more overbearing grandmother for Charlie – whom she all but took under her wing, usurping her
mother’s authority.

Even still, the queasy discomfort that hangs over the Graham household after the funeral steadies the film in an uncomfortable grip, from which it is never quite released. Working in glorious tandem with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski and production designer Grace Yun, Aster creates an atmosphere of domestic claustrophobia that masterfully builds towards the horror that follows. Even making Annie a miniaturist was a genius move – in reconstructing their domestic setting in impeccable detail, it allows the film to create its own hall of mirrors; a strange psychological fun house effect.

To speak about the plot in more detail would be to spoil too much, but as the film’s promotional material hints, the true strangeness kicks in once Charlie is revealed to have a clairvoyant link to her recently-dead grandmother. Suffice it to say that this all leads to a downward spiral of doom – a sense of doom that has classical provenance. It is poor Steve that appears to carry a lot of the brunt of his family’s neuroses, and he’s informed – though he’s too distracted by an attractive classmate to pay much attention at the time – about the tragic hero of Greek drama in class; how a blindness to surrounding events can lead to his downfall.

But Aster’s film is a work of horror – not a morality play about the dangers of hubris. The film is enveloped with a primordial doom, and the suggestion that madness can often be the only transcendence we can hope for.

So yes, it’s something of a bleak tonic, but it’s so well put together that you’ll end up drinking it to the dregs regardless. (Or at least, we hope you will – there was some American hullaballoo upon release about it not appealing to the crowds).

Because Aster’s film is a prime example of horror’s ability to remind us how, beneath the veneer of what we put up, the truth will always plunge us into the same place. Faced with tragedy, and confronted by our own shortcomings, we will all remain at the mercy of our neuroses. Things can get ugly. But it’s an ugliness we all recognise.

The verdict

Impeccably designed and acted, Hereditary is a cut above the rest of any horror dross we may see coming our way in this (or any other) season. Bereft of jump scares or other cheap tricks of the trade, it is a merciless dive into the chaotic malestrom of the subconscious, elevating the dynamics of guilt and mental illness into a dark transcendence that may or may not be tied in with the supernatural. Immersive, gripping and haunting to the end.