Resist expectations and trust the filmmakers

We will always need movies that mess with our expectations. Ari Aster’s Hereditary arrived in cinemas the way all of production company A24’s horror releases have: the poster emblazoned with critical comments on its ‘nerve shredding’ terror, calling it ‘a new generation’s The Exorcist’, it reflects the marketing campaign for Robert Eggers’ witch hysteria-themed period drama The Witch (2015). In the lead up, audiences were thirsting for a gory, jumpy witch possession trip, but they got an arthouse film about puberty and isolation.

The exciting production company’s latest confounds expectant audiences in a few ways worth talking about. The story of a family’s descent into grief-ridden madness is tinged with influence from genre-hopping classics like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973), but its frank violence and deranged character motivations recall the short story writer Flannery O’Connor, whose work is horrific, but it’s never classed as a horror. Hereditary uses fearful imagery and filmmaking to absorb its audience, but rather than scaring you and giving you a safe thrill, it wants to warp you and stick with you. Fear is only one of its motivations.

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Annie Graham (Toni Collette) is giving a eulogy for her mother. Visibly uncomfortable up on the podium, she sputters out a joke about how her difficult mother would be ‘suspicious’ of all these unfamiliar faces in attendance. The joke falls flat and Annie plunders on, intent on capturing the icy, difficult nature of the matriarch whose grip, we will learn, is still very much tightly wrapped around the Graham family’s throats.

Trying to digest the very difficult grief one has after a strained relationship has ended, Annie attends a grief counselling session. She unloads about her family’s shocking history of mental illness, which includes schizophrenia, her mother’s nonsensical rituals and a father with ‘psychotic depression’, who starved himself to death. Before attending she told her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) that she was going to the movies. This is just after he’s been on the phone with the cemetery, being informed that Annie’s mother’s grave has been desecrated. He tells Annie it’s just some ‘billing stuff’.

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Lies and faltered communications infest the world of Hereditary like a termite invasion, crumbling the family unit’s foundations. The oldest Son Peter (Alex Wolff) gets high daily at school, where he stares agape at the back of the girl he likes and can’t concentrate in class. Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is the youngest daughter. Shapiro probably invites the most appropriate Exorcism comparison, given that she, like Linda Blair in William Friedkin’s movie, is a shockingly adept performer. Shapiro infuses Charlie’s blank stares with what might be untapped genius, or dark magic. She sleeps in the attic where it’s freezing and makes a popping sound with her tongue that, if you see this movie in the cinema, will seem to come from anywhere in the room, or perhaps inside your own head.

The family’s problems and each player’s performances gradually chip away at whatever understanding you have of this seemingly well-off family. When, early on, something devastating happens, the scariest moment in the film is watching Collette break down, dredging up a magnificent performance of grief in screams and desperate begging to let her die, followed by a stunned, paralytic depression. She begins to sleep in the attic.

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Wolff allows his performance to be a slow burn. He deals with grief by internalising, scowling at the world in a way that forcefully communicates his miserable thoughts, whether you want to hear them or not. Byrne, as the tryingly upbeat father, doesn’t quite match the intensity of his co-stars, but his reservation plays an important part in the family’s dynamic.

The movie begins to get weird with the introduction of Joan (Ann Dowd), supposedly a woman from Annie’s grief counselling. She offers what she considers a way to deal with the grief, which Annie accepts reluctantly, perhaps simply because it’s something different to do with her day. This strange turn of events is at times comical, ludicrous and bears its influences from trashier horror movies proudly. These moments beg the audience to trust the filmmaker, who knows where he wants this to go, bizarre as it may seem. What will hold your attention amid the insanity are the lingering camera shots and droning, exhausting score from Colin Stetson. The final 30 or so minutes are the family ripping apart, the total breakdown of the unit we’ve seen cracking and splintering for the first hour and a half.

It might make you mad, but so can grief. Leave your expectations to the franchise movies and let this one get under your skin.

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