Written and Directed by: Ari Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Milly Shapiro, Alex Wolff
Hereditary is, in fact, a horror movie. That alone shouldn’t be considered a spoiler since A24’s marketing material has been strongly trying to bring that point home to us, the ticket-buying audience, since the get-go. However, any astute moviegoer who has come across any of the myriad pieces lumping it together in the same breath with The VVitch and The Babadook might have approached the box office, if at all, with trepidation. And with just reason.
Like Robert Eggers’ The VVitch (which is, indeed, a horror offering) and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (which isn’t), Ari Aster’s feature writing-directing debut, is simply put, not a crowd pleaser. Which does not necessarily label it at once as pretentious (which, in my humble opinion, none of those three movies are) but it does address the fact that it uses genre with different purposes in mind.
Saying that the household formed by Toni Colette, Gabriel Byrne and their kids Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro is dysfunctional is the greatest understatement in history. Grandma was a manipulative matriarch (which ultimately will end up being her most benign treat), Colette’s brother starved himself to death while in the throes of depression, she herself suffers from sleepwalking episodes that lead her to the brink of unthinkable actions, and daughter Shapiro ambles around in an aloof cloud, seeing and experiencing a world all of her own. Indulging in specifics of plot would not really help elucidate its potential for success or failure and would ultimately come off as a disservice.
Nevertheless, the first hour and forty minutes of the movie (of its two hour and bit total running time) do not even try to be scary. That is a movie by itself, one dealing with grief, loss and mourning. And it does so extremely well. There is death all around: the movie starts with a card taking up the middle of the screen showing us grandma’s obituary and then there is the end of life or the threat of it coming from old age, murder, suicide, accident, omnipresent. During this stretch the only present fear comes from having to become that person, the one who lost someone, the one who is about to leave, the one who wants to leave. These fears are very much real and soul-stopping and Aster is able to orchestrate a permanent mood of mostly mute despair and unrelenting dread with his depiction of lives lit by mellow tones that turn the surrounding shadows with an even colder edge. These tones may be, at turns, both embracing and heartbreakingly melancholic.
The recurring shots of miniature work may very easily be interpreted as the Matrushka dolls leitmotif implicit in the title: house, tree house, miniature house, grandmother, mother, daughter, depression, schizophrenia, dementia. Or it may be, simply, that Aster loves Lego. Even though performances are all rock-solid this is Colette’s show and she chews the scenery with every opportunity the often insightful script grants her. Actions, reactions and dialogue are totally believable and the level of difficulty she treads on is amazingly high.
It is all around good filmmaking although how recommendable I am just not sure. It is a thrill ride if you will, although not the exact kind jump scare afficionados may expect. It is a harrowing one as well that will likely leave any invested audience member emotionally exhausted in the most depressing way regardless of how cathartic or empathetic they may find the experience.
But this is a diptych, almost as drastic as Full Metal Jacket, and the last twenty minutes become something else entirely. From here Aster lifts the curtains and leaves behind all ambiguity and, with it, any chances for us to accuse his movie of lacking the courage to stick the landing. Which it does, formidably.
If the first, longest part of the movie had been easily comparable to Polanski’s Repulsion the
denoument becomes his The Ninth Gate as it takes us the one step further needed to leave our gravity-based reality behind and enter the one beyond, Lovecraftian in its relentless urge to drive us thoroughly insane with its blitzkrieg of grotesque imagery and hair-raising sound design.
Whether this finale warrants the feature-film length prologue is up to you but having enjoyed both sides of the same coin for their own reasons, I can attest it does. Hereditary is a horror movie but not very concerned, for the most part, with scaring you. — Eloy Ricardo Balderas Salazar