I do not abstain from movie trailers, teasers and other promo junkets, with a pathological aversion without good reason. Perhaps a solitary superlative, a single-sentence synopses, a still or poster infiltrates my defensive walls but a spoiler can arrive in the most minute of forms proving the truly thin line between intrigue and a dead giveaway. A film’s mood, its director’s intent and vision, can be tipped off that easily, and too prematurely to jibe with what I personally deem a sound moviegoing experience. With Hereditary, the hype had been circulating vociferously but for me the hook was one wide shot of two figures standing across from each other in a room; one enveloped by fire while the other (Toni Collette) recoils in horror. A final word on spoilers.. if you were to see one of the film’s posters next, it wouldn’t take much to surmise who the figure in flames was.
Termed its generation’s Exorcist, and drawing inspiration from the aforementioned exemplar along with an old horror lineage predating Friedkin’s film in Rosemary’s Baby, is exalted company to be mentioned alongside of but for me, that image, that small bit on family, grief, and ensuing descent into chaos sealed everything. I was hooked, ready to board the hype train, and it was a matter of time for the opportunity to catch it during a theatrical run or distribution. Upon mulling it over, you can even see some of The Shining‘s themes in spurts, though not to the degree of Kubrick’s weighty allusions. But as with any event subject to acclaim and anticipation, there is an element of disappointment and anticlimax to contend with, and inescapably so.
When the film opens the Graham family is in the process of interring family matriarch Ellen Leigh, an overly secretive, estranged personality by her own daughter Annie’s account… so distant, in fact, her acting credit is photographic! In a support group, Annie (a miniature artist) reveals an on-again off-again relationship she and her mother endured, highlighted in particular by Ellen’s involvement with one of the grandchildren’s rearing and not the other, to the point she wished one was born a boy. We also learn of a prolonged history of tragedies that have beset the family over the years, mainly a father’s depression and suicide and a long-dead schizophrenic brother.
It may not be grief sending Annie to commiserate with bereaved strangers; prior to her visit to this community center, she experiences visions of her mother’s apparition around the house. Her teen-aged son, Peter (the one kept away from his grandmother in infancy) wants to attend a party but is forced to take Charlie, his younger sister, as vice deterrent. He falls for the bluff instead of admitting drug use will occur, or deflecting the matter altogether. Now, Charlie is somewhat weird, has an allergy, and is mutually taken to her grandmother more than anyone else is shown at that point. At the party, Charlie, while unattended, eats some cookies that set off her allergy. On the drive away, Peter swerves around an animal on an unlit street while Charlie sticks her head out the window for some air and gets decapitated by a telephone pole. So it’s back to the cemetery again. All this is inside the first 30 minutes suggesting there might be no holds barred by director Ari Aster.
Keeping things together is Steve (Gabriel Byrne), Annie’s husband, who up to now has maintained some semblance of sanity, keeping from Annie that Ellen’s grave was desecrated a week after the funeral. Since Annie has been passing off visits to group therapy as movie night to her husband perhaps there is a pattern of mutual deception at play here despite the logical takeaway for the viewer is that you don’t convey to your grieving partner that news about their dear departed. What’s expressly shown is the festering acrimony between Peter and Annie over Charlie’s death. Aster may be well within his artistic freedom in not showing Annie’s reaction firsthand to Charlie’s death or leaving out the legal fallout from the accident as to not disrupt the flow. But all the while, Steve employs every bit of his diplomatic reserves acting more as moderator rather than peacemaker when mother and son finally confront the topic of their silence wars.
This brings Annie to a different avenue in her pursuit for closure. Joan, another mother bereaved of a child, provides Annie with a final outlet via a chance encounter outside the community center. You know, a convenient place lest prying eyes are in proximity. Chance and mistrust are not so much dual themes as Ari Aster screaming out his intent. Joan introduces Annie to the idea of seances and conjuring the dead as a way to navigate her own grief, which Annie is skeptical of at first. She demonstrates the ritual works by contacting her dead son meaning there’s one way for Annie from there; bring out Charlie’s spirit. By now Steve has had it with Annie’s weakening resolve and something’s got to give as the three surviving members summon Charlie’s spirit. The miniature sets she creates begin to substitute title cards, becoming elaborate dioramas resembling upcoming scenes and repressed memories, and over time Annie appears to lag behind in deadlines and blows off her work commitments.
With demonology and the paranormal, the logical thing to ascribe to inter-medium machinations is the simple formula of what goes up must come down. When a spirit is called on to this plane, and Annie fears the pandora box ramifications, the process must be reversed, or the channel be closed or whatever. The object used to invoke the dead being a dear possession may be destroyed to break the link to the otherworld. These are worldly attributes we assign to another realm we understand little of but it makes sense for us and for said world to comply with. Except when the called-on spirit is malevolent, simple measures won’t do, right? And hence the wrong person went up in flames.
In Annie’s frantic rush to abort communication, she discovers that Joan is part of a cult, knew her late mother, and that Ellen presided over the cult. The film effectively becomes a possession piece in the vein of Rosemary’s Baby with the loaded and oppressive paternal themes from The Shining. Instead of Charlie, a demon’s spirit is resurrected as part of a long-brewing masterplan going as far back as her childhood. Much of this tonal curveball can fly over the head as the reveal either feels unannounced or abrupt, suggesting a director clutching at last straws with the viewer’s patience. Except little shows he had the audience’s expectations in mind when he killed off the eccentric likable archetype early. The truth about Hereditary lies not between inception and release but rather multiple viewings.