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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Hereditary movie review: the haunting is coming from inside the family (#SundanceLondon2018)

Hereditary yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
The sinister ambiance has a terrible grace, but its raw and honest portrait of grief and guilt is ultimately diminished by the supernatural horror that is also at play.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast
I’m “biast” (con): not easily spooked by what passes for horror onscreen
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, female coprotagonist
(learn more about this)

A bird flies into a window, leaving a splatter of blood. Inanimate objects move seemingly on their own during a seance. Ghostly shapes hover in the deep shadows of a dark and miserable house. Mysterious figures wave ominously from across a yawning distance.

A child repeatedly makes an annoying clicking noise with her mouth.

I don’t scare easily, and it takes a helluva lot more — and a helluva lot different — than what Hereditary is offering, the bones which are nothing we haven’t seen plenty before. Yes, writer-director Ari Aster, making his feature debut, has elevated some familiar tricks of the horror genre to a place of terrible grace, but that’s nowhere near enough. The sinister ambiance of Hereditary is effective… but that’s not story, and dragging out that morbid atmosphere long past its welcome can’t hide that.

Strange children being strange. We’ve seen this before.

Strange children being strange. We’ve seen this before.

As a portrait in grief and guilt, Hereditary is raw and honest in a way that eventually works against the supernatural horror that is also at play here. Toni Collette (Please Stand By, Madame) is absolutely extraordinary as Annie Graham, a woman struggling with the fact that the death of her mother doesn’t have her as upset as she is “supposed” to be. They were estranged, and her mother was a difficult woman, secretive and manipulative, the latter particularly with regards to Annie’s 13-year-old daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Annie tries to comfort the heartbroken girl with the reminder that she was Grandma’s “favorite,” but to others Annie describes the relationship in more aggressive and unpleasant terms, her mother with her “hooks” in the child. Annie is also deeply conflicted about her own motherhood, perhaps because of her relationship with her mother, though that’s not clear… and in fact, Hereditary’s gloss on the darker taboos about motherhood that women don’t speak of, at least not in pop culture, is more strained. It plays like it was constructed by a man who has heard women complain about motherhood without really understanding why they’re unhappy. Though it did gift us with the spellbinding scene in which Annie screams in forbidden frustration and rage at her older teen son, Peter (Alex Wolff [Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Patriots Day], one of the most interesting young actors starting to make a splash), which is probably her Oscar clip right there.

Hereditary ends, frustratingly, just at the moment when its speculation gets really intriguing.
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It’s hardly a surprise when the film begins to suggest that the weirdness of Annie’s mother may have had a fantastically malevolent bent to it, but it is something of a disappointment. The haunting of Annie’s family — which also includes her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne: Carrie Pilby, The 33) — spreads beyond her, and their collective shame and self-reproach, their sorrow and suffering, ceases to be a grimly enchanting metaphor and settles into concrete reality. That this family is literally haunted diminishes their disquietude much in the same way that offering supernatural possessions as an explanation for mental illness diminishes the complexity and the humanity of that condition. (The film hints at this as well.)

Are malevolent forces watching our world from another plane of being? Eh, maybe. Who can say?

Are malevolent forces watching our world from another plane of being? Eh, maybe. Who can say?

Yet while Aster has no interest in ambiguity regarding what Annie’s mother was up to and what spectral evil her actions have brought down upon Annie’s family, he also doesn’t want to be too specific about it, either. As happens so often in movies with speculative elements, Hereditary ends precisely when it might have found something original to say, just at the moment when its speculation gets really intriguing. Aster seems not to quite know what to do with the kernel of his idea, and after taking an overly indulgent time turning it over, he rushes to an ending that doesn’t satisfy. The question of “Wait, how did we get here?” battles with “Wait, but what next?” But there’s no next.

Aster startles with some provocative imagery: a shot of the exterior of the Graham house, nestled in a foreboding woods, flips from day to night like someone turned an electrical switch, which is more unsettling than it sounds. But often, again, it seems like he fails to realize the power he’s playing with: Annie’s work as an artist crafting miniature diorama scenarios from her own life, of her house and of her family, is ripe with potential to suggest other planes of existence that we are being looked in upon from, which would have been perfectly apropos to the larger story, yet not even a suggestion of such ever manifests. The overwhelming emotion Hereditary left me with, then, is not shock or terror, but irritation and exasperation. I can see how this could have been a great film, and I can also see where it went off the rails.

viewed during the 2018 Sundance London film festival


Click here for my ranking of this and 2018’s other theatrical releases.


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yellow light 2.5 stars

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Hereditary (2018) | directed by Ari Aster
US/Can release: Jun 08 2018
UK/Ire release: Jun 15 2018

MPAA: rated R for horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use and brief graphic nudity
BBFC: rated 15 (strong threat, gory images, language, drug misuse)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Cynthia Brooks

    Excuse me for speaking out of turn, but I feel like your disappointment in this film comes from your expectations you had prior to viewing it. It seems like you were expecting to see something evocative of “The Babadook”. Sucks that Collette’s performance wasn’t enough to make your experience at least above average.

  • I feel like your disappointment in this film comes from your expectations you had prior to viewing it.

    I’m not sure how you’ve come to this conclusion. I knew nothing about this film before I saw it except that it was horror and starred Toni Collette. I expected that she’d be great, because she always is. That’s all. I had no idea that motherhood was going to be a motif here, and had no reason to be expecting *The Badadook.*

    But perhaps you can explain how “expectations” don’t color *everyone’s* experience of movies.

  • Paul W.

    It seemed three movies in one, and Aster couldn’t decide which one to make. He’s very good at building and sustaining tension and gives us some truly unsettling images. But it’s a half hour too long, and has some of the most obvious and ridiculous examples of foreshadowing I may have ever seen. Collette, though, is absolutely fantastic. And Ann Dowd is, as always, a treasure.

  • ellemnop70

    I actually had, largely, the same reaction that you did to the film: it seems smug and polished (loved the cinematography) but left me with a meh reaction–in your words, it “went off the rails.” I’m not so essentialist to think that a director must be a woman to write a realistic version of bitter motherhood, but I agree with you that the character of Annie rings hollow to me in ways that the mothers in _Goodnight, Mommy_ or _The Babadook_ do not.

    I was so *not* sutured in that as I was watching, I kept thinking of other films that earned their twists/endings–_Session 9_, _Don’t Look Now_, _Rosemary’s Baby_–and finding _Hereditary_ sorely lacking.

    You’ve probably read this already, but A.O. Scott also notes the film’s failings is a manner similar to your review: “Mr. Aster writes an impressive-looking check and succeeds in cashing it, but on close examination the payout turns out to be skimpier than anticipated, and drawn mostly on someone else’s account.”

  • sharto

    I was at least kinda enjoying the creepy value (it wasn’t scary). the ending reminded me of all the 70’s ”lets trick somebody to sacrifice” movies. but the preview helped and really hurt my viewing. preview made you think charlie was going to be in it more. most prominent part of preview was ”man on fire”. when anne told steve HE had to throw book in fire you could see what was coming a mile away.

  • My wife and I saw this Saturday.

    This is a peculiar movie and is hard to pin down. At the
    heart it’s a family drama about secrets and terrible loss. This is probably
    best part of the film, but also one that typical horror movie fans might cringe
    at. You just don’t normally get this kind of drama and emotion out of a horror
    movie. I can see this being very polarizing.

    But then we have the horror elements, which are actually
    kind of typical, and not all that effective. Interesting, yes, but not scary.

    Then we have a far more interesting third element to the film,
    which sadly gets very little development or backstory. Just tiny blurbs that
    you have to catch throughout he movie. What the heck was grandma up to in her
    very secretive life? The movie tells us just enough to understand by the end, but also not enough at all. THIS is what we needed more of in this movie. Sure, it’s been done before in horror movies many times over, but I still wanted to know. We are left with all sorts of questions at the end, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing I know.

    The movie is a bit too long, and drags out some scenes
    almost to the point of comedy.

    Toni Collette is great, as she always is, but the two kid actors needed help.

    Gabriel Byrne felt odd here, and I kept thinking how old he
    is in real life. He’s 68 and Toni is 45. 23 year difference! Typical Hollywood
    pairing older men with younger women. Not that it matters in the movie, just a
    tidbit.

    Overall, it’s a mixed bag big time. It’s being advertised as
    a horror movie, which it really isn’t. I can see this not going over well with
    your average audience. It could have been better if the writer and director
    could have figured which movie they wanted to make. As it is it’s just too
    jumbled up. Some very effective scenes, but ineffective as a whole.

  • He’s 68 and Toni is 45.

    I love Byrne, but I hated this pairing. Hollywood need to stop with this shit.

    (I think I might tweet this…)

  • Michael_Rogers

    Film might have been saved if the last line of the film was Alex Wolff’s character saying “Cool!”.

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