Hereditary (2018) by Ari Aster
Review by Jessy Alva
Ari Aster’s debut film Hereditary has critics and audiences alike seemingly ready to herald it one of the best horror films in some time (even though Aster himself has made contradictory statements on whether or not he considers it one). If you listen closely, you may even hear echoes of fans make the film’s iconic tongue-click off in the distance. I’ll admit that watching this in a packed theatre definitely enhanced the viewing. As my husband Andrew Swafford pointed out to me, it seemed as though Aster included the tongue-clicking as almost a playful invitation for the audience to join in on the film’s creepy chorus, much akin to the throat-curdling we all know and love from The Grudge. Despite this, I left disappointed in the film, which fell dramatically short of all the praise it’s been receiving. Warning: spoilers ahead--look away!
As a current student of clinical mental health counseling, I was more than a little agitated with the handling of mental illness in Hereditary. While at a grief counseling group, Toni Collette's Annie confesses that death and illness are not foreign to her family. She shares (despite the overwhelmed glances of her group-mates), that her mother suffered from dissociative identity disorder (commonly referred to as multiple personality disorder) and later dementia as well. Her brother suffered from schizophrenia and eventual suicide, and her father suffered from chronic psychotic depression. Annie shares later in the film that sleepwalking trickled down her way--paired with a splash of an involuntary tendency towards sleepmurdering. The film later provides context for these supposed illnesses, effectively pathologizing mental illness as a cover-up for Satanic worship and demonic possession. This isn’t new. Before psychology was studied or taken seriously, mental illness was more than commonly thought of as contact with the devil (see: The Salem Witch Trials). I’m always here for a good, classic Satanic cult flick, but let’s not conflate this as a natural cause of mental illness.
Hereditary went through three layers of horror subgenres over the course of the film. First, we have a psychological thriller as we are introduced to the family, and learn that mental illness is, well, hereditary. We are with them in shock in the aftermath of a trauma and see the psychological de-evolution of the characters. This would have been a great and powerful narrative in and of itself, but we keep going, much to the film’s detriment. Don’t get me wrong. It is scary. Yet, the movie seems to be having its own identity crisis. Is this a psychological thriller about a family wrought with unshakeable trauma unraveling at the seams? Is it a supernatural horror movie about a conjuring gone awry? Is this an occult movie about worshiping the devil (et al.)? I think all three of those premises are great…separately. But piecing it all together left so much rich storytelling mostly unexplored.
One far underdeveloped domain of Hereditary was its characterization. We are TOLD things about each. Annie’s family had mental illness. Annie makes creepy miniatures of her family...and gets paid for it? We get one scene in which she pours out her entire family history, but why pack all of this story into so little space? It’s easy to see that she has never quite gotten reconciliation for her upbringing, yet this is captured through a couple emotional outbursts that never really landed for me.
Molly Shaprio’s Charlie is undoubtedly the most underserved character of the film. We’re clearly supposed to view her as weird--always wearing a large jacket, refusing to sleep in her own bed, inappropriately and irritatingly always tongue-clicking, never quite able to communicate the depth of her feelings to others. But why? Are we supposed to deduce from her deformed face that she has some kind of intellectual disability? This is implied at times, but never confirmed, which then leaves the film guilty of committing the fallacy: intellectual disability = weird. We don’t get to see her as a human; we simply see her as a creepy little girl who gets on everyone’s nerves. I suppose the film sort of answers our questions about Charlie in its final act by saying “Oh, it’s because she was in cahoots with the Grandma (who was in cahoots with the devil) the whole time!” but we never know if this is something she wanted and was excited about, or if she was just voluntold to share her soul with the devil.
Perhaps the most baffling thing to me, was the aftermath of the film’s emotional peak, wherein Charlie gets decapitated in an auto accident as her stoned brother Peter (Alex Wolff) attempts to get her home in time to administer an epinephrine shot. I nearly shrieked out loud watching that scene, hoping so much for Peter’s sake that we had both imagined that. Peter never really faces the reality of this. He drives home, and leaves the body to be discovered by his mother the next morning. What I thought would proceed next might be court hearings, involuntary commitment--some way in which the film could acknowledge that in reality there would be some repercussions for this. But aside from a quick funeral montage paired with Annie’s blood-curdling screams as she discovers the body, we soon find Peter back at school, definitely shaken but not too shaken to get stoned again with his buds. I found it more than a little inconceivable that he would more less get to continue on as usual as if this was just your run of the mill oopsie. When you get food poisoning from oysters, you generally stay far away from oysters for a very long time, so it stands to reason that if you decapitate your sister while driving stoned, you’d probably stay far away from the devil’s lettuce after that. Wolff made the most out of his character, but inevitably Peter is too thinly written. He gets three whole character traits: he loves pot, he wants to bang that one chick in his English class (another undeveloped plotline), and he’s scared of his mom.
Steve…. (the dad with the unexplained Irish accent)…writes...emails? And disapproves of things?
The movie is called Hereditary! Let’s explore the inner workings of this family. You’d think, given how much time we spend with these characters, particularly Annie and Peter, that we’d get a sense of who they are, but we don’t. Even by the end of this 2+ hour movie, I, as a counselor-in-training, just felt like the movie never truly saw them as people and didn’t bat an eye to chew them up and spit them out. As a result, I didn’t much bat an eye either.
I’m frustrated with Hereditary because it had so many good pieces. So many avenues that I would have loved to explore, from the family’s rich and complicated history of mental illness, to the extent of this cult that we don’t find out about until way too late for it to be interesting. Had the film firmly planted itself as a psychological de-evolution of a family failing to cope with a devastating loss, I think it might have justified all the praise it’s getting and left me with a genuine pit in my stomach as I left. Unfortunately, its lack of focus or care for its characters made the end feel as empty as grandma Ellen’s grave.