The strange thing about the Grahams isn’t that their goldilocked, mentally thwarted progeny can’t help her clucking. One season with RuPaul’s drag queens yields involuntary clucks aplenty, as horrendous a volume as few made eerie in Ari Aster’s unflinching debut, Hereditary. No. The strange thing about the Grahams is that they live in a dollhouse, one in which they’ve lost any and all agency to unmoor themselves from the nightmares designed by dark forces afoot. This suggestion is made clear with great panache in the film’s opening shot, gliding ghoulishly inward a Victorian house miniature where—impossibly—a character walks into the room. Such level of artifice has been seen in films like Peter Greenaway’s The Chef, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and far beyond the function of a portentous, mood-setting image, Aster’s use here deftly establishes the language with which the film speaks—smart, inspired, exquisitely assured.
Inside the Graham household, we meet Annie Graham (Toni Collette), who, aggrieved by the scantness of sorrow she feels over her mother’s death, offers a piss-poor impression of a loving eulogy at the funeral. “Thank you all for coming today,” she says faintly. And later, of the abundant turnout at the open casket, she mumbles. “I know my mom would feel very touched, and probably a little suspicious.” That gives away a few things you should know about the Graham women: they don’t exactly get along, and they very obviously keep a repertoire of shade cocked and ready for throwing, specifically on events in which one hovers another’s coffin. Cluck! Interestingly, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), for reasons I think are best unraveled on your own, appears to have been favored by her grandmother, and now seems daunted by what devilries await. “Who’s gonna take care of me,” she asks Annie…
…cluck! “When you die?”
That’s the Grahams for you. When they’re not taciturn or aloof, they have ominous, existential dialogue. They seem at ease estranged and in far proximity from one another. And come nighttime, the dinner table becomes the venue of their deeply rooted sneer-fests. On one side, you have Peter (Alex Wolff), who seems foursquare on the notion that his mother, Annie, is a monster. Not too absurd an idea, given Collette’s beastly facial contortions as she thunders over him, wrathful of “that face on [his] face!” Cluck, cluck! Repulsion dissipates thick in the air at the Graham household, and Steve (Gabriel Byrne), its tenderly defeated patriarch, just wants a bowl of mashed potatoes for him to peacefully enjoy, and can’t, because sinister forces are at work.
Alex Wolff as Peter Graham in Ari Aster’s “Hereditary”
Of the film’s story—down to its core a stirring exploration of grief and the ineluctability of family and heritage—this is about as far as I’m comfortable letting on. To discuss the film’s plot in less faint terms would be a disservice to its surprises, of which there are plenty, each one unfurling with abundant flair. But you should know that the film’s dread is of the type that incites the urge to flinch not so much to its frights but in its quieter moments. One shot, in particular, is destined to sear into everyone’s brain; it is, technically, a shock, but its weight lies not in the abrupt flashing of the image itself but the craft of building to that. Another shot, which features Peter and Annie, will haunt viewers long after the credits roll.
These moments indicate that Aster is beyond unleashing weightless catharses and is after not to unmoor us from the film’s horrors but to ruthlessly tether us closer to them. The certainty with which he operates renders Hereditary an especially thrilling horror film. You come to it willfully resigned, even when its indulgences tip it over the point of hilarity, as it often, indulgently, does. And unlike recent “post”-horror offerings—Robert Eggers’ The VVitch, Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night, and David Lowery’s A Ghost Story—Aster’s filmembraces the horror genre and fetters itself to the conventions of the genre in a manner that doesn’t betray but enable its story.
This is laid on thick as the film moves onward and closer to its denouement, which is a head-to-the-wall, downright insane descend into sheer pandemonium—an upside-down shift from the film’s more studious first half, doubtless the root of the divide among people’s reaction to the film. Two minutes into this culmination, you’ve all but trained your eyes to wade on every fringe of the screen, helplessly espying something that isn’t even there. Toni Collette, you realize, for the nth time in this one film, is a true force to behold, and you know you’ll champion her for all the awards she can yield, come what may. You also find yourself entranced by the film, acquiescent to the quirks and frills of its ripely drawn intrafamilial dysfunction in the guise of a spine-tingling shock machine of a film.
2018 / Drama, Horror / US
Direction: Ari Aster
Screenplay: Ari Aster
Cast: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne
After the family matriarch passes away, a grieving family is haunted by tragic and disturbing occurrences, and begin to unravel dark secrets.