[Note: I’ve attempted to avoid spoilers in this review, but how well I’ve done will depend on your tolerance levels for spoilage. Proceed with caution!]
Hello, beautiful creatures.
I don’t often review movies here, in part because it’s not really part of my training. While I’m an avid movie-watcher, I often don’t have more to say about a film than whether or not I liked it, and why. That can be really subjective, though, and for me, a review should be more than a relation of my subjective experience of watching a film. After all, my tastes aren’t any more indicative of quality than anyone else’s, right? Mostly I prefer to watch films as a viewer, rather than as a critic: to experience them viscerally, not analytically.
Occasionaly, though, there are films that I find impossible to merely experience… or rather, there are films that knock me out of the experience of being a viewer and force me to engage with them analytically, even critically. There are films that force me to confront them, argue with them, unpack them. I have to figure out what they are, why they are the way they are, and why I’m responding to them the way I am.
Right now, that film is Hereditary, the feature-film debut from director Ari Aster.
Released to wide critical acclaim by A24, Hereditary is an extraordinarily well-made, emotionally affecting film. It features some incredible performances from Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne, and the utterly brilliant Toni Collette, who had damned well better get at least an Oscar nomination for her tortured portrayal of Annie, a woman teetering on the edge of rationality. It’s moody, atmospheric, bleak, and utterly terrifying. It might be one of the best horror films of the past decade.
I feel deeply ambivalent about it.
The film’s first act is a portrait of a family trying to cope with its own wounds and sorrows. It opens with a funeral for Annie’s mother, who was a problematic figure at best. (Sharp-eyed viewers will spot clues as to the film’s direction from the outset; for the rest of us, all will become clear in time.) As the story unfolds, we see how her life and death have shaped and, in many ways, warped the family. This is hard, even painful viewing for those with complicated family histories, but it feels incredibly real. We see Annie struggling to maintain some kind of equilibrium in her personal and artistic life, and we see her husband Steven (Byrne), son Peter (Wolff), and daughter Charlie (Shapiro) all working through their own grief and complicated feelings in various, sometimes disturbing ways.
Up to this point, I found the film compellingly uneasy. It’s here, though, at the end of the first act, that Hereditary takes a sharp nosedive into the horrific and unimaginable, and becomes a truly harrowing viewing experience, so much so that I found the second act of the film deeply difficult to sit through. I won’t spoil the film for you; there’s Wikipedia and TV Tropes for that, if you want to be truly forewarned. Suffice it to say that I’m a fairly hardened viewer, and Hereditary managed to horrify, terrify, and outright squick me by turns.
The third and final act is where Hereditary attempts to pull everything together, rolling like a runaway freight train towards a horrific conclusion whose inevitability is foreshadowed repeatedly throughout the story. I think it’s fair to say that how you’ll feel about the entire film will depend entirely on how you feel about this third act and conclusion.
For me, this is where the film fell on its face. Why? Well, without going too far into any specifics, the underlying machinery of the plot relies heavily on witchcraft and magic of the spooky Goetic variety. This is hinted at early on, and becomes increasingly obvious over the film’s runtime. Now, I’m not one to turn up my nose at occult horror; I loved A24’s previous attempt at spooky-witchcraft-cum-family-drama, Robert Eggers’ folk horror debut The Witch (2015), with which Hereditary can rightly be compared. The difficulty is that, for me, the occult elements actually detracted from the film’s emotional impact. As a practicing occultist, I found the witchcraft in Hereditary (which, in this case, is really more demonolatry) somewhat interesting, if also a radical distortion of what practitioners actually do. As a moviegoer, though, I found that the emotional impact of this poor family’s heart-wrenching tragedy was fatally undercut by the sense that there’d never really been a chance for them from the start.
It’s possible that this simply isn’t my kind of film, and fair enough; not all things are for all people. However, if I’m left with a feeling of “Okay, but so what?” at the end of a film, I think it’s a fair criticism to ask what the point of telling me that story was in the first place.
Do I think you should you see Hereditary? If you’re a p-word who’s also a horror buff, probably so. This film is going to be the talk of the town for days to come, both for its emotional depth and the fact that the filmmakers actually did some legitimate research into the occult. (The fact that their research took a backseat to the needs of the grim-dark story they wanted to tell is, I suppose, par for the course.) If you’re not a horror fan, or if you’re sensitive to violence and graphic imagery, you’ll want to give this one a miss; it’s genuinely terrifying, and it’s miles down a dark, deserted road from anything I’d describe as “entertainment.”
Hereditary is available on DVD and BluRay.
Until next time, dear ones, see you at the movies. ♥