Cast: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd
Director: Ari Aster
Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
WARNING! This review contains King Paimon-adjacent spoilers
Writer-director Ari Aster's feature debut, Hereditary, is a film about a family disintegrating, the inexorable weight grief has on the mind and body, and how curses can be tracked through the genetic line, appearing as signs of possible mental illness. At least, that's what its makers would have you believe. Actually, Hereditary mainly concerns a doomed family succumbing to a royal demon as part of hell's bureaucratic hierarchy. The picture's first half is the kind of intriguing/ponderous dirge passing for arthouse horror these days--i.e. long takes, discordant music cues, occasional frightening imagery, and fraught family squabbles--before descending into giddy madness during the final 30 minutes. Though many will find the last act disconnected from all that came before, the film's gear shift into Rosemary's Baby/ The Wicker Man territory is actually its strongest asset, almost as if Aster finally decided to wake up make his manic horror movie. It may have been too little, too late.
Truthfully, Hereditary is going for a more visceral kind of horror for the majority of its running time. Things begin with the death of the family matriarch, to which diorama artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) confesses at the funeral at just how complicated their mother-daughter relationship was. Her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne) sulks around dealing with things internally and trying to keep the peace. Their son, Peter (Alex Wolff) is your typical pothead high school student--emotionally fragile, disaffected, pining for the cute girl in class-- while mentally challenged younger sister, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) mostly lurks around acting creepy and clucking her tongue. The film's opening image-- a shot which moves slowly around Annie's studio before pushing in on a bedroom diorama housing Steve and Peter, is instructive-- this is a family trapped inside their own insular world of pain.
The impetus for structuring a horror film around the terrifying reality than you may not be safe within your own family unit is a fine idea. In fact, many recent attempts within the horror genre have used similar narrative strategies, such as Robert Egger's The Witch and Trey Edward Shults' It Comes at Night. However, Aster's aesthetic tics often undermine his attempts at observing the frayed wounds of a dysfunctional family. Favoring long takes, slow camera pans, and symmetrical mise-en-scène (complete with saxophonist Colin Stenson's disorienting score), the film has a showy formalism which works in fits and starts, particularly with single images. However, Aster too often falls prey to self-indulgence; padding out scenes in order to elicit supposed tension. The results are often frustrating; as if the film is spinning its wheels by using the blanket of "atmosphere" in place of narrative momentum.
The film's best early moments involve the actors digging into the unstable psychology of their characters. A dinner table scene where Annie explodes in a fit of hysterical rage after months of buried emotion is an example where Aster's filmic patience pays dividends. Collette, whose performance is pitched somewhere between ridiculous and breathtaking, absolutely nails the moment; showing how Annie's pent-up anger stems from not only from grief, but also the disdain she has for her own children. It's an ugly scene, but a truthful one.
Less successful are the moments where Peter's bong-ripped teenager stares off blankly and begrudgingly takes his sister to a house party where he hopes to get closer to his school crush. Of course, this all leads to the film's most shocking moment involving an allergic reaction and a speeding rush to the hospital. As if the tone of impending doom wasn't already suffocating enough, this event shifts the family's emotional/psychological state into complete free-fall. It's an effective twist; one landing with a certain amount of sickening dread because Aster remains locked in on Peter's dazed expression. Still, the director just can't help himself, eventually cutting to a horrific image that is both unnecessary and exploitative. He wants the audience to be shocked and disturbed, but it mostly feels like Lars von Trier-level provocation.
Once Anne Dowd shows up as a fellow grief support group patron offering Annie a shoulder and an ear, Hereditary begins showing its cards. Sequences involving séances, supernatural malevolence, and creepy naked old folks standing in dark corners of the room begin pilling on as the tone lurches toward silliness. Honestly, this turn into literal evocation of classics like The Exorcist, The Shining, and especially Rosemary's Baby, takes the film from a self-serious drag into the realm of near shlock, which is where things should have been operating all along.
As occultic shenanigans unspool (complete with a goofy page-turning moment where Annie discovers her mother was some kind of cult queen in an old book in the attic), Hereditary reaches a level of maximum lunacy. This is a good thing because, as much as Aster tries to convince us to take all of this seriously, the film's climax reveals the themes of mental illness and familial trauma to be something of a red herring. Turns out this family was doomed from the start; controlled by a high ranking demon named King Paimon, who was simply looking for a hunky male host body. Therefore, the heightened climax; complete with Stenson's swelling saxophones as Peter is crowned demon king, reveals two things: one, cult members are really into nudity, and two, beheadings are somehow necessary within Hell's inner workings. All hail King Paimon, indeed.