Hereditary begins after a 78-year-old woman, Ellen, dies, leaving her daughter Annie (Toni Collette, “Krampus”), teenage grandchildren Peter (Alex Wolff, “Coming Through the Rye”) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro), and their father Steve (Gabriel Byrne, “The 33”) alone in the house they’d shared at the end of her life. That’s one thing made eloquently and devastatingly clear in the beautifully put together opening scenes of this film; while there are four relatives living in the home after Ellen is gone, each of them is alone.
Reserved and anxious Annie, who did not have a remotely fulfilling relationship with her mother, spends her days preparing an art installation for a gallery showcase she has coming up; a series of eerily beautiful and specific miniature scenes based on emotionally charged moments from her life. We see her find a book and note among her mother’s things, and react to them not out of confusion and curiosity (even if mixed with dread) but a more familiar desire to not deal with them just yet. We also see her notice an apparition in her workshop and tell her husband she saw something, but not how much it scared her or what it was. Instead, Annie processes her feelings (and her assumed location on the periphery of her mother’s supernatural world), at first, entirely through her art.
Charlie, the oddest and youngest of the bunch, turns to similar coping mechanisms, crafting crude sketches and creepy amalgamations of household objects and bits of dead animals she finds, all the while hair-raisingly clucking her tongue. Sometimes she sees visions of her grandmother, or tells her mother she wants her back. There is a sense (too-soon abandoned) that this 13-year-old, like her mother and grandmother before her, knows something the rest of her family, and we, do not.
Personality-less Peter, meanwhile, avoids emotional confrontation by mostly sleeping and secretly smoking weed, and overlooked Steve caringly and tiredly attempts to check in with them all. Based on how separately and simultaneously the remaining nuclear family lives their lives, it is clear that Ellen has left quite the mess behind. But what kind of mess is it, and, has she really left at all?
You’ve heard about Hereditary. Either when it debuted at Sundance or when the trailers first started going around or after this weekend, as critics and mainstream audiences alike screamed its praises from the hilltops. Except, they didn’t. At least, that’s not all they did. At the time of this writing, the Tomatometer on RottenTomatoes clocks critical reception of the film at an average of 8.3/10. This, even when the so-called positive reviews still call it “a terrifyingly absorbing puzzle until the moment you solve it, when its disparate elements coalesce into a dispiritingly familiar picture,” (The New York Times) or state that Hereditary includes “more spooky ideas than it knows what to do with,” (ScreenRant) even choosing to describe it as “twisted,” which, even in this context, is not a direct synonym for “good.” So why the insistence on praising it so highly, even while acknowledging so many of the problems it definitely and blatantly has?
As a long time lover of horror and a devoted A24 fan in general, I have actively and vocally looked forward to watching and reviewing Hereditary since I found out what it was. Its vague trailer, studded with not spoilers, but breadcrumbs, intrigued me and countless other horror fans. That’s the thing about breadcrumbs, though. They’re supposed to lead somewhere. Otherwise they’re just essentially trash in the way of the path to where you’re actually supposed to go.
And that is what happens here. If you try to follow the breadcrumbs (initial implications that Charlie is in on Ellen’s secrets or that Ellen attempted to indoctrinate a young Annie and failed, for example) you’ll get lost and, by their own admission, an overwhelming majority of fans of Hereditary liked it because of its “unpredictability” and their inability to understand what was going on. That is all well and good, but it also says more about them than it says about writer/director Ari Aster’s work. When, too soon after the family’s initial loss an even more horrific tragedy occurs, all foreshadowing up until that point goes out the window, if you’ll forgive the morbid pun, and this once promising premise devolves into too many other less interesting ideas.
The worst part is, up until that terrible turning point many of the interactions between the different members of the family, especially those initiated by Steve, are endearing, believable, and genuinely make sense. When Peter tells his mother about vague party plans and asks to borrow her car, it is entertaining and familiar to hear her call his bluff, and even encourage him to bring his strange little sister along. As a viewer and a person who has told that same lie, I absolutely buy that. I absolutely do not, however, given both Peter and Charlie’s extremely negative reactions to the idea along with several other factors, buy that Annie would actually make them both go.
I also cannot believe, based on lines of dialogue repeated by both Annie and Steve to Charlie at Ellen’s funeral that, had she forced them to go to what Peter told her was a BBQ and where she suspected he’d be drinking, they would have been allowed to leave the house (to avoid spoilers, let’s just say: Unprepared). If you need her to be at the party, Ari, then you need to get her there in a way that makes sense. I also don’t believe, again based on those earlier comments from her parents and the fact that Charlie is 13-years-old, that when she finds Peter at the party she would say what she does.
After that, too, no matter how shocked Peter was by what happened and regardless of his mental state at the time, I don’t believe that what he leaves, what he brings home, and where he leaves what he brings home would or should not ever be explicitly addressed by his family (the dinner scene, because it implies an earlier conversation we do not see, does not count) or community (no one at school treats him differently afterward at all), or that Aster (as I have often heard), given the physical and emotional violence he subjects us to at other times, would see any logical reason, time lapse or otherwise, to leave such reactions and conversations out of the version of his film that made it to theaters.
I would love to believe that the answers to these questions and others were left on the cutting room floor, rather than never having been brought into the room to begin with, but I guess no one will know until the release of the wildly long director’s cut.
Which is yet another issue in and of itself — if it takes four hours to fully express your movie, then maybe your movie should not be a movie at all. Maybe it’s really two movies, an original and a pre- or sequel, or maybe it’s a family chronicle that would be better expressed in a book or television miniseries. Maybe it, as argued here and elsewhere, is a movie that comprises too many things, and maybe it would be okay — better, even — to cut at least some of those . . . just . . . so many things down.
Lest this response get misconstrued as nitpicky or salty that more information in Hereditary was not spoon-fed, allow me to just say that “It Comes at Night” and “Under the Skin” are two of my favorite films distributed by A24 or anyone, I love Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” and “Melancholia,” I positively reviewed last year’s “Happy Death Day” despite its plot holes and because of its consistent scary fun, and I have been deeply moved by a Terrence Malick film or two.
This critique is not looking into things too much. Rather, I just don’t think Aster is being fair to his audiences, or even that audiences are being fair to him. He’s expecting too much from us, on the side of suspension of disbelief and personal interpretation, and we’re overly praising too little from his side of our relationship, gleefully ignoring the differences between a reveal or a twist and a plot hole, deus ex machina, or otherwise unearned “surprise.”
In somewhat reductive yet not incorrect terms, this film either needed to be significantly more grounded in reality or significantly less. As is, it attempts to do both in a way that certainly gets under one’s skin, but not because it is brilliant and tightly put together, because it absolutely is not these things at the end even though it seems that it will be at the beginning. Also, simultaneously accusing naysayers of looking too far into something while also relying on one’s own unverified assumptions and elaborate fan theories in order to explain their concerns away is not productive discourse and absolutely does not a good script make.
On the topic of elements for which Hereditary has been getting more credit than it honestly deserves, if you were impressed by the idea of Annie’s art as a metaphor for the manipulation of her family by larger, sinisterly custodial forces present within their psyches and home, compare her to, for example, Adele Lack Cotard, wife of protagonist Caden Cotard in Charlie Kaufman’s masterful “Synecdoche, New York.” Adele is an artist known for her unrealistically wonderful miniature paintings. Their fantastical smallness contributes significantly to the overall surreal nature of the film, and their ever decreasing size represents both the shrinking of the relationship between husband and wife and the complementary diminution of Caden’s own sanity and self esteem.
There is even a further connection in that the very name “Adele Lack Cotard” is homophonous to “a delicate art,” which would be one accurate way to describe what she makes and does. This combination of image and theme is present, explored, and expanded upon throughout the entire duration of the film. Truly — even its devastating final moments are directly related to the success of Adele’s artistic career. Compare that to how little is ultimately done with Annie’s art in Hereditary and how much could be, even in the scenes where we see her working on or otherwise interacting with it.
This is a failure of the writing and, speaking of, Aster commits two deadly sins in this screenplay that any freshman writing workshop student would be eviscerated for by their professors (at the time of which, they would also be more than ten years Aster’s junior, a fact only relevant here due to repeated mentions of his age in positive critical responses to this feature debut).
Not only does he have the only exposition in the entire film be delivered by Collette’s character via dramatic monologues to strangers on three separate occasions (her eulogy at her mother’s funeral, a long winded outburst in a grieving support group, and a harrowing confession in the home of a woman she’s just met), but Aster also penned two scenes in which the play a high schooler is reading in class directly comments on their lives. What’s more tragic, one of Peter’s teachers asks as part of a lesson on Sophoclean tragedy, having terrible things happen because of the choices one makes, or regardless of them? An offscreen classmate of Peter’s posits that the latter, being only a pawn “in a terrible, hopeless game,” is worse. I’d argue instead that what’s worse is having an entire film fall apart because you’ve decided that the majority of the excellent foreshadowing and character development in its first half needs to fruitlessly disappear in order to make way for twists that will give your audiences physiological experiences rather than psychological ones in the second, and somehow being praised for your so-called ingenuity anyway.
That’s the issue with the second half of this film. It pains me to say this, but even “Ouija” had a more clear, creepy old lady related explanation for its events and twist at the end. And because of that, no matter how good the acting (Alex Wolff is good, Toni Collette is better) or location or anything else I’ve heard praised about this movie is, if you’re truly paying attention to everything Aster sets up in the beginning and everything else that is not explained by the end, it is difficult if not impossible to bring oneself to understand or care.
If you’re doing as much work as many critics and other defenders of Hereditary have, excusing or explaining objective plot holes with “well maybe it was a curse,” or “maybe it was mental illness,” or “maybe it was a spell,” or “maybe the grandma did x,” or “maybe Charlie’s on the spectrum and that’s why y,” as I have often heard, it means that Ari Aster did not do enough. Period. And if you enjoy this film because it scared you, or made you think about your own family or inner emotional life or favorite horror flicks or fears, or because occulty things always get you, or because you love haunted house movies, or because you always freak out when you see creepy kids (all explanations I have heard), then you need to realize that you liked this movie not because of the movie but because of you. Because of what you brought into the theater even if, like me, it was something as simple as prolonged excitement from the trailer and a love of recent films brought to us by A24. And that’s okay! You’re allowed to like things, even if they are flawed. And this movie, immediately leading up to and after you-know-what-happens, is definitely flawed.
As the trailers played before the film I attempted to think of others in this genre that exemplified similar “hereditary” themes. The first that came to mind was last year’s “Raw.” Among many other notable cinematic achievements, this incredible — and incredibly disturbing — film did an excellent job of installing its backstory and twist as part of its initial context. In the beginning, but only then, Hereditary seems to be trying to do this same thing. Alas, instead, Aster’s film is a grand exploration of what happens when you throw too many things at the wall and, even after that, too many of them — if only partially — stick. It exemplifies bad imitation, rather than artful homage, in a way that again says more about what those who like it have enjoyed in other movies than it says about anything else or itself. I don’t see what about any of that could be described as “hereditary,” and only hope it won’t be contagious throughout this genre, or future A24 films, too.