Monday, 25 June 2018

Hereditary (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: After the death of her mother, Graham family matriarch Annie (Toni Collette), her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and their children Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro) try to adjust to the tragedy. However, they soon discover increasingly strange disturbances going on in their house, and Annie begins to discover some strange things about her family history. It seems that the Graham family is under threat by some force, but is it something foreign to them or is it something that has been with them from the beginning?

Collette is absolutely phenomenal here as the head of the household, shouldering an unearthly amount of sorrow, shame and uncertainty in every scene she’s in. She follows in the footsteps of Essie Davis in The Babadook in how unrelenting her depiction of motherhood is, pulling no punches in showing just how unhinged and frightening her psychology is. Byrne is probably the weakest of the main cast here, as he not only gets the least screen-time of the main family but also doesn’t manage to squeeze as much dread out of that screen-time as the others. Still, as what can charitably be called the stable one of the Grahams, he works at helping anchor some of Collette’s more derailing moments.
Shapiro portrays more of the quiet terror of the situation, keeping things simple and primarily-physical in her performance, allowing the rather unsettling imagery around her push forward. And then there’s Wolff as the eldest child, who manages to give even Collette a run for her money as far as sheer acting craft goes. With a seeming fraction of effort, he manages to juggle his grim relationship with his family, his own bubbling fears and his place as what is essentially the entry point for the audience without anything getting lost in the shuffle.

Right from the very start, we are given a clear idea of what the film is visually going for in two different regards. For one, the initial use of miniatures ends up informing a lot of Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography, giving the frame the feeling that we’re observing the events from a certain distance. It gives a mood of reluctant voyeurism, as if we’re watching a family break down in the wake of tragedy and, even with the distance involved, we’re still too close for comfort.
For the other, it sets the film’s tone as eerie yet unorthodox. The film as a whole ends up eschewing most prevalent horror film tropes; no egregious jump-scares, no instances of letting the soundtrack jolt the audience all on its own, no real moments where the film tries to distract from itself. Writer/director Ari Aster and co. put all their stock into building atmosphere, an effort that pays off in abundance with how suffocating the air around the film can get. There are brief moments of viscera, but it never comes across like the film is using it as a cheap tactic. Rather, any instances of gore end up serving as spikes of narrative tension, points where the underlying dread of the story finally pokes its head out and glares at the audience.

This serves as Ari Aster’s feature-length debut, but the man has been keeping himself busy in the short film racket for several years up until this point. Not only that, he seems to have already developed his own auteur fingerprint as far as the material he’s most comfortable with: Home is where the horror is. Whether it’s the incestuous savagery of The Strange Thing About The Johnsons or the clinical shuddering of Munchausen, even turning something as simple as losing your keys into a bedrock for unease with Beau, Aster has shown efficacy in depicting bizarre and unsettling domestic situations

Here, it feels like that signifier has blossomed into something pure as his writing serves to look into the connections that the Grahams have with each other, both in life and in death. The majority of the film looks at Annie and Peter’s respective dealings with grief, each having their own forms of regret to deal with, and what gets unearthed in that time is nothing short of paralysing. It pulls the familiar trick of making the audience question whether what is going on is truly supernatural or just in the heads of the characters, but it does so in a rather unique way: It addresses the genealogy of mental illness. When Annie goes to a grief counselling group and explains her family tree in terms of psychology, we see the usual notion of what we inherit from our parents go down a very disturbing road. In addition to looking at how death can leave the bereaved with memories, fears and regrets, it also looks at the things that we are left with even during the deceased’s lifetime. This combined with the unrelenting atmosphere results in one of the more unnerving looks at family dynamics I can recall seeing.

This is all in spite of this film being one of the more obtuse I’ve covered on this blog so far. One of the bigger clich├ęs of the genre that this film makes an effort to avoid is exposition; we aren’t given lengthy monologues about how the supposed spectre works or why it’s this particular family that the events are happening to or even that clear an idea on what this purported spook even is. Instead, what is revealed about the inner workings of the plot is shown through visual language, requiring the audience to pay a real amount of attention to what is going on. As much as I have definite respect for films that show an equal amount of respect for their audience, I can’t help but think that this film went a little too ambiguous because there’s a lot here that I still haven’t been able to figure out yet. Bits of literal symbolism and allegory, even the use of miniatures within the narrative itself, seemed to completely elude me as far as definite meaning goes.
It’s rare that I come across a film that is this difficult to pin down, even on a first viewing… and yet, I’m not nearly as annoyed with that as I thought I would be. I have been growing more comfortable with the idea that some films require more than one sitting to get a real handle on, and even with the parts of this film I didn’t “get”, it still managed to keep me engaged throughout. Or, to put it more simply, I may not understand what I’m seeing but that doesn’t make it any less horrifying.

All in all… okay, I get a real feeling that this film would benefit from a second viewing, as there’s quite a few details that I’m still unclear about. However, that ultimately doesn’t change how truly unsettling this film can get. The acting is tremendous, with Toni Collette and Alex Wolff giving their absolute all into their performances, the direction plays the long game for scares and ends up crafting an atmosphere as thick as smog for the story to sit in, and the writing wields an uncanny understanding of family drama and even mental health to create a story about how grief and family connections can irrevocably change people. I freely admit to not having wrapped my head around everything this film has to offer, but with how good this comes across from its initial viewing, I have no issue with the idea of watching this again to get the full experience.

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