Home is where the harm is
The true horror in Ari Aster's Hereditary doesn't come so much from daemoniac forces as they do from human frailty and the cruel chaotic confusion of life.
Annie (Toni Collette) and Steve (Gabriel Byrne) Graham are parents of two: the uncommunicative Charlie (Milly Shapiro)--who seems to demonstrate symptoms on the farther end of the autistic spectrum--and Peter (Alex Wolff) a pothead slacker. Annie's mother Ellen has just died and the family is attempting to deal with the burden of her passing. Not just a matter of mourning--as Annie reveals before a support group, mother and daughter have had a love-hate relationship bordering on predatory, not to mention a family history full of depression schizophrenia suicide.
And you get that; you can relate. Unhappy relations between mother and child? Family history looming over your head like some kind of genetically ordained stormcloud? Aster creates such vivid characters the actors presumably realized what they had in their hands and pitched in their support (Byrne and Collette act as producers). They give it their all, Collette with every twisted grimace every barely-controlled tremulous hiss, Byrne with a stolidity that grows increasingly fragile as the film progresses.
Aster's script pulls off a few clever tricks: Annie's family history can be an unwieldy piece of exposition but having it all come out in a flood during group therapy is a great way to convey the unlikely horrorshow quality of her story, not to mention the added bonus of watching Collette's face warp and shudder with each revelation, as if she were pulling her large intestine out from a hole in her side, her face registering each hard yank.
In contrast, Shapiro's Charlie is a chillingly blankfaced kabuki mask. She's impassive when people are being mean to her, impassive when watching her grandmother being lowered into the earth; you wonder what if anything can get her to respond. Has an odd cluck! she makes deep down her throat that I suspect will be remembered as one of the creepiest sounds in recent horror films, alongside the gurgle in Takashi Shimizu's The Grudge. Has a predilection for chocolate--but not with peanuts; that would be bad.
Then the accident--a tad unlikely, but so brilliantly staged and timed you feel as if you'd been knock flat (by a baseball bat--or a telephone pole?) with shock. And nice little touch: slacker Peter is so overwhelmed by what happened he steps out of the car walks zombielike up the front steps of the house climbs quietly into bed where he waits--wideyed unmoving--for dawn. Ever done something so enormously unbelievably awful you can't bring yourself to tell anyone else? Exactly.
We've learned little about Peter so far but some days later when sitting down with his mother to dinner we learn plenty--the pain the anguish the accusations the things not said after years of being bottled up inside, to fester and seethe. Aster writes plainspoken dialogue--or that's how it sounded to me--but Collette and Wolff deliver with such ferocity if you don't exactly know what was said you can tell from tone rate delivery exactly what's being felt. It feels ugly; it feels real. Byrne's Steve referees from the sidelines but you sense his dismay at having the people he loves most tear at each other in front of him.
Odd detail: we aren't sure what Steve does for a living. Turns out (thanks to an interview with the filmmaker) he's a therapist--which makes sense, given the size of the house and their apparently large disposable income--but not something made clear at the outset; one draft of the script reportedly reveals Annie to be a former patient of Steve's (which is how they met). Which would have added a nice extra dimension of complicity to Steve's otherwise featureless martyrdom; the film mostly relies on Byrne's lined leathered face to suggest his anguish his sense of responsibility.
Nice visual detail: Aster has Annie take up miniatures as a hobby or artistic occupation, and shoots Annie's dollhouse creations in a lovingly obsessed manner that mimics Annie's detail-oriented drive, or Charlie's affinity for dead birds and chocolate. He's less successful in suggesting the house itself as a kind of doll house (Frank Borzage did a better job in Seventh Heaven, George Stevens in The Diary of Anne Frank, Tim Burton in Beetlejuice) but his miniatures are spooky little triumphs, mirroring and magnifying the grotesque nature of house and inhabitants.
And then and then and then--in the last half hour it all falls apart (Skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven't seen the film!). Aster throws in a conspiracy of witches a demonic possession all kinds of unlikely special effects, knocking emotional realism out the window like a solidly struck baseball. Collette's Annie, who felt so vivid to us so honest, is suddenly a puppet under remote control, her death--floating in the air with a length of wire in both hands--seemingly more ludicrous than lurid; Shapiro's Charlie--so understated so unsettling--is neatly explained away as a temporary vessel for a demon lord.
Aster cites Rosemary's Baby as an influence and a look at that vastly superior film may indicate what went wrong (skip the next two paragraphs if you haven't seen Rosemary!): you wonder if Rosemary Woodhouse is imagining things or if there really is a conspiracy around her baby; Polanski's achievement isn't just to sustain the ambiguity (which he does until O about the last ten minutes) but to suggest that either alternative is horrifying (In Hereditary I'd say the possibility of a demonic cult messing with your life is far less unsettling than the possibility that this is your life, and you have no one else to blame but yourself). The change on Annie's face from terrified dismay to blankfaced robot (much like Charlie's) is another telling moment--we are all in effect robots subject to supernatural powers, and it's all out of our hands anyway. Perhaps the single most awful moment in Polanski's masterpiece comes when Roman (Sidney Blackmer) steps aside and invites Rosemary to come take her baby. "You're trying to get me to be his mother," Rosemary accuses him. "Aren't you his mother?" Roman replies. The Devil--or at least his representative on earth--taking a page out of God's playbook: allowing Rosemary the freedom to choose.
Rosemary's decision isn't necessarily absolute and final, she must have mused to herself: the child has years before he assumes any crown or throne, years where she could influence him, perhaps even run away with him if the opportunity presented itself. She can in effect temporize, kick the can down the road--a very human trait; meantime she can come to know her child. Arguably is the most cynical most terrible lesson the film can teach: that human vice is a diabolic virtue, human love a fatal weakness. Far better than Hereditary's ostensible lessons: "Always bring your epi-pen!" or "Never mess with an Ouija board, especially after reciting an incantation of unknown provenance!"
Meanwhile there's this: three quarters terrific, one fourth not so. Enough that one has formed expectations of Aster: may he come up with something as good for his next feature, hopefully more consistent in execution.
First published in Businessworld 6.22.18