Tracing the fault lines of familial trauma without any ostentatiously showy post-modern paranoia, Ari Aster’s Hereditary is extremely cunning, but more importantly, it’s never clever. For all Aster’s talents as both writer and director, his film is blissfully and unapologetically free of any desire to outfox us. For a horror film released in the waning years of the 2010s, Hereditary is almost singularly unhindered by any compulsion to ironize itself and foreground how much it is outpacing our intellects. There’s no sense it is running ahead of us, wagging its finger at us for not keeping up. While its moral architecture is deeply tangled, to say nothing of its truly dyspeptic emotional knots, the film’s style is resolutely classical, mining the depths of its characters’ austere mental insularity in order to depict a family without any exit, staging a drama of almost demonic predetermination.
Although presentiments of terror lurk in nearly every nook and cranny of Aster’s metaphysically brutal film, Hereditary essentially never cheats, but nor does it try to trick us with sleight of hand in the first place. It gives us all of itself, withholds none of its intent so as to stroke our egos by allowing us to “uncover” parlour tricks masquerading as emotional truths. The only twists here are the kind which tangle your stomach in knots. Each and every premonition of woe has the emotional texture of a forewarned intuition, not so much an inevitable, forthcoming tragedy as a clarification of the unstated, barely-sublimated traumas that have always lurked in its central family’s lives, stalking their every gaze and conversation.
What Aster hath wrought is, essentially, a palimpsest of familial gloom, past traumas and present lesions so fully imbricated upon one another that any way-out is hopelessly foreclosed before the film even begins. Rather than an inelegant spiral of call-backs and clever storytelling gambits, Aster offers a simple, ostensibly clean catastrophe, all the better to purge the film of excess and plunge us into the swampy emotional consciousness and tenuous connections which constitute the Graham family, to strand us in a miasma of interpersonal hesitation as we witness a family in the middle of a slow-motion internal freefall, less like peeling a band-aid one hair at a time than having your soul darkened in near-stasis.
The basic situation is that Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother has recently passed on and, the death opens up a lesion just barely being held together by the family’s collective disinterest in confronting one another. The contours of this lesion are uncertain, but the film is never about clarifying or demarcating its borders, explaining exactly why and how they – Annie, husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), son Peter (Alex Wolff), and daughter Charlie Graham (Milly Shapiro) –have grown so cruelly dismissive and mostly disinterested of each other, even as they so obviously and half-hesitantly pine for and leech upon each other’s emotions.
Other figurative and perhaps literal specters descend as the film progresses, but Hereditary never schematizes these questions as indulgently or insipidly as, say, Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak; whether or not the ghosts are literal or figurative hardly matters when you’re living a truly flattened existence, a kind of excruciating walking nightmare too nightmarish, and too slow, to even realize how horrifying it really is.
While Hereditary is a truly depressing affair, the grave-like pallor hanging over the characters and choking the cinematography never feel dignifying or falsely ennobling, like they are congratulating us for basking in their hallowed glory. No, Hereditary’s seriousness is always genuinely heinous, even more brutally soul-churning than something like Wolf Creek, if admittedly not as truly nihilistic and intentionally devoid of psychological logic. Hereditary is, comparatively, ultimately grounded in character, although the crisis its central family faces is truly, perversely affective first-and-foremost; if the reasons for the black cloud hanging over the household remain somewhat oblique, nothing about the film’s style or feel ever seems withholding or needlessly complicated. Aster, as it were, films from the head, but aims for the gut.
And he basically never misses. As the film progresses, there are a few belabored moments, unbecoming after-lives of a first-draft’s cautious over-calculation of its material, most notably the way Annie’s need to grasp onto any control she can in her life is overdetermined by Aster’s decision to make her a professional miniature sculptor, contouring a simulacrum of her family’s house she can manage and thereby driving her inability to cope with the world around her into focus. But while most horror film’s only intermittently and negligibly tingle and tense up in empathy with their character’s, Hereditary seems to have tapped into its characters’ abyssal personas from the get-go.
Most of the film’s best moments are baleful harbingers of darker, deeper works to come from Aster, and even the dollhouse aesthetic encodes a cruel, theater-of-the-damned quality into the film, evoking a demonic-encryption of Ozu in its diorama-constructions of depleted people being pantomimed through a desecrated world without any seeming agency, or horizon, beyond the barely-there skulk of their walk and the static glimpses on their faces. They either suggest people ruthlessly protective of their emotions or already evaporated of any emotions in the first place. Aster, clearly, is not sure which would be worse. (But Wolff’s totally, bracingly barren facial expressions must be seen to be believed). Cloistered within the film’s hallowed halls, each actor – Collette and Wolff most assuredly – bristle with expressionistic dysfunction and unaffected gloom, ensconced in a hell of their own making, a domestic uncertainty, a horrific banality worthy of Hannah Arendt.
It’s really frightening stuff, much more so than A Quiet Place, the film it has been bizarrely and frankly absurdly compared to. Compared to that sturdy and inspired, if hardly revolutionary explosion of absence and empty sonic space, Hereditary exposes truly personal tendons, not only of the characters but Aster’s. A Quiet Place ultimately satiates us with its conservative gender politics and traditional style, its sonic absences only clarifying how it amounts to nothing more than an echo chamber for a paranoid vision of a world apparently hell-bent on threatening the holy writ of family itself. Comparatively, Hereditary explores a different, more existential horizon: an inward menace which does not assault the family from without but shadows it from within, revealing how the institution that A Quiet Place takes for granted is not suddenly being brutalized by the outside world but is, fundamentally and more immanently, worthy of question. Their souls on ice, the central family of this most Faulknerian Turn of the Screw is suffused in a truly purgatorial shroud, each member gnawing into the other with bone-deep brutality, the nuclear family as a closed ecosystem of self-sustaining terror constantly derailing its advances toward compassion and humility.
In other words, while A Quiet Place ultimately strives to save the soul of the classical nuclear family, sacrificing any subtextual (or even textual) indeterminacy on the back of the fact that its only real anxiety is that the world is filled with threats to that most conservative of institutions, Hereditary suggests something far more immanently petrifying about the family structure. While the family in the more popular film is besieged from the outside, Hereditary argues that the family is powerful enough, or pitiful enough, to sabotage itself, is a fundamentally unstable creature. It makes the more popular film look like child’s play, a little bit pokey by comparison.
While A Quiet Place threatens a real ruckus, Hereditary mostly sits in mournful repose, shaken by its own sinister tableaux. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski adds a Polish chill that wouldn’t be out of place in Roman Polanski’s most desolate feature, or Pawel Powlikowski’s recent work divining the corpse of Ingmar Bergman with his films Ida and Cold War. Call Hereditary an intimate wake while A Quiet Place is a real rollercoaster, all shock and no awe. Throughout, Aster’s film seems deeply aware that its audience is privy to the unsettling build-up of an accident. But the film’s most terrifying moments are too prescient to evoke the unknown anxiety of an incoming implosion. Aster imagines, instead, that the family is a drawn-out, unclassifiably cataclysmic happening. And precisely because it does not take for granted that the family is a functioning unit to begin with, it registers a sense of quotidian apocalypse on a punishingly personal register.
Which, admittedly, isn’t going to be for everyone. For films which aspire to eschew the aforementioned chicanery of gleeful, post-Tarantino cinematic postmodernism, all their faux-lawlessness and rebelliousness failing to cover-up their essential simplicity, the only alternate path sometimes seems to be the kind of dreary, self-serious calcification embodied by Christopher Nolan. I’ve been as disdainful of that kind of cinematic solemnity as the next person. But I have to give the devil its due: Hereditary is a truly wasted, tarnished beauty, downright seditious in its simple seriousness.