By Noel Vera
Directed by Ari Aster
THE TRUE HORROR in Ari Aster’s Hereditary doesn’t come so much from demoniac 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 kids: 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 relationships between mother and child? Family history looming over your head like some kind of genetically ordained storm cloud? Aster creates such vivid characters the actors presumably realized what they had in their hands and pitched in their own 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 horror show 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 out her large intestine 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 gravelly gurgle in Takashi Shimizu’s The Grudge. Has a predilection for chocolate — but not with peanuts; that would be bad.
Then the horrifying accident — a tad unlikely, but so brilliantly staged and timed you’re at the edge of your seat waiting for the shoe to drop, the sky to fall, the ball to be literally knocked out of the park. And nice little touch: slacker Peter is so overwhelmed by what has happened he steps out of the car, walks zombielike up the front steps of the house, climbs quietly into bed. Where he waits — wide-eyed, 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 semiautomatic ferocity if you don’t exactly know what was said you can tell from tone rate delivery exactly what they’re feeling. It’s ugly; it feels real. Byrne’s Steve referees from the sidelines but you feel his dismay at having the people he loves most rip at each other’s insides 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 suffering.
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 suggests 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 (thought 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 appallingly spooky little triumphs, mirroring and magnifying the grotesque nature of the house and its inhabitants.
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, tossing emotional realism out the window. Collette’s Annie, who feels so close to us for most of the story, clicks an internal switch and is suddenly a puppet under remote control (her subsequent death — floating in the air with a length of wire in both hands — seeming more ludicrous than lurid). Understated, unsettling Charlie 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 tells you what may have gone wrong: part of the suspense is in wondering if Rosemary Woodhouse is imagining things or if there really is a conspiracy around her baby; Polanski not only manages to maintain the ambiguity but suggests either alternative is equally horrifying — and even when the cards finally fall in one direction Rosemary’s situation still feels like it could happen to any of us. Lots of crazy folks in New York, the film seems to tell us, and it’s difficult to disagree.
Meanwhile, there’s this: three quarters terrific, one fourth horrible and not in a good way. There’s enough here that one has formed expectations of Aster: hopefully he comes up with something as good for his next feature, and more consistent in execution.
MTRCB Rating: R-13
By Noel Vera