Is it more tragic when a person’s choices dictate their fate or when a force beyond one’s control decides the path they must follow? This is a question that a high school teacher poses to his students in a scene in Ari Aster’s wonderfully creepy film Hereditary. While the classroom discussion itself is brief, like most of the key clues in the film, one needs to pay close attention to the details.
Hereditary is the type of horror film that takes its time building its unsettling narrative. Some of its most disturbing moments come not from the supernatural sphere, but rather the world and emotions that we can all identify with. This film is as much about the way grief and regret can tear apart familial bonds just as it is a chilling tale of ritual and legacy.
Aster sets the uneasy tone quickly by opening the film with the obituary and funeral of Annie Graham’s mother Ellen. Annie (Toni Collette) and the rest of her family, consisting of her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and children Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro), are not quite sure how to feel about Ellen’s passing. After all, as Annie points out, they did not have the best relationship with the overly demanding matriarch. The depth of the fracture is not quite apparent at first.
Slowly trying to come to terms with her mother’s death by secretly attending grief support group meetings, and working on her next art exhibit, Annie’s sense of loneliness increases when unimaginable tragedy strikes the family once more. As the emotional pain and unexpressed hatred grows within the Grahams, the only source of solace for Annie comes from fellow support group member Joan (Ann Dowd).
Claiming to have found personal calm through an unbelievable event, Joan introduces Annie to a ritual that could potentially heal Annie’s family or curse them forever.
How scary one will consider Hereditary will ultimately depend on one’s previous experience with the horror genre. Frankly, it is best to avoid the “is it the scariest movie ever” debates completely, as it takes away from all the things this film does right. This is a film that revels not in its jump scares, but rather the unrelenting emotional anguish the characters endure.
The first half is an exquisite and unnerving study of the effects of grief on the human psyche. Toni Collette’s sensational performance in this section, and the brilliant sound design, which will literally have you looking over your shoulder, help to establish and heighten the tension of the familiar horror elements in the latter half.
While the final fifteen minutes are not smooth as they could have been, again if you are not paying attention to the details then you will might be completely lost, one cannot help but appreciate what Aster was striving for. Hereditary is a chilling and effective exploration of the dark journey that sorrow and regret can lead one down.