I hate when I can't fully celebrate a great film. By all counts, this is tremendous filmmaking. I think the last time I was this absorbed in a film was La La Land--completely entranced so it feels like there's barely a gap between you and the action on screen. I really dug the way Ari Aster (The Strange Thing About the Johnsons) used hyper-frame-rate to give hallucinatory sequences a hypnotic and otherworldly feel. It was tremendously creepy, and I found it effectively unnerving; figures in the shadows are dependable, especially when I have trouble telling what's my imagination and what's the director's vision. I was so unnerved by some images and sounds I slept with the lights on. In terms of craft, this is undeniably in my top five of the year so far. For the genre, I would place it right next to Brian De Palma's Carrie in the canon.
Yet I'm conflicted, and I'm glad I don't rely on star ratings as much these days. It's impossible to quantify my feelings about it.
Hereditary is about a broken family after the estranged grandmother dies. Nightmarish events follow, and grandmamma left behind some secrets. Are these unleashed delusions stemming from grief and guilt, the terror of mental illness, or the long-gestating machinations of a satanic cult? I couldn't tell you walking out of it. Heck, it may even be a combination. As a note, the following will be extremely spoiler-heavy, especially regarding the ending, since I feel that is the best way I can talk about the film and my feelings about it.
There's certainly evidence that this could be the result of suppressed mental illness. Toni Collette's (The Sixth Sense) Annie describes her family's history of destructive illness in a grief share scene, and the only one who doesn't experience hallucinations is the long-suffering father (Gabriel Byrne, The Usual Suspects). A lot of bizarre imagery occurs when we're experiencing a scene through Annie or the children. A failed seance, though, has supernatural occurrences that the husband does experience and is weirded out by. So is the Satan stuff real? Does his perspective matter? Is there anything objective in the film? Is this constant questioning the intended effect? If so, is that to be lauded or not? I'm conflicted.
I find myself in a similar pickle as a pastor friend of mine. A major film buff, he and a friend used to go to a high-quality horror film a year in theaters. One year they saw Robert Eggers's The Witch (or The VVitch). Though he thought it was a good film, he felt it was problematic, if not evil. That film ultimately ends with the daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy, Split) selling her soul to the devil, stripping naked, and triumphantly joining a coven of witches, levitating in exultation. The marketing also didn't help, as it pushed the film as a proponent for Satanic/occult religions (a la PureFlix films for Christians). While The Witch is probably exactly what it seems (granted, I haven't seen it), Hereditary seems to have more grey area and complexity.
After the father is burned alive, the rest of the film could be from the subjective point of view of Peter (Nat Wolff, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), who manifests the personality of his dead sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and imagines the occult business. Still, this doesn't quite explain the Joanie character. Maybe grandmamma and her offspring were crazy, but she really did convinced other people to form a demonic cult.....
That section was originally going to be my attempt to explain the film as a metaphor, but as I was drafting it, I read an article from the cast and director basically reading the film literally. That is, the film should be seen for what it is foremost, though additional figurative meanings may be gathered. But if the film is objectively a chaotic descent in a family's life because the grandmother needed to bring about the human manifestation of a demon, I wonder why it pushed mental illness so hard at the beginning (granted, a clustersmudge of diseases and disorders). If it ultimately shouldn't tie in to our definitive reading of the film, why introduce that wrinkle? Misdirection? Denial? To add to the chaos?
Am I being too narrow-minded or more narrow-minded than I usually am in my reviews? Perhaps looking at the finale a bit more will make me feel better about my ultimate feelings about the film. In the end, Peter is possessed by the unwitting Charlie, who is actually a demon that has amassed a small but very creepy, very invasive, and very naked cult, thanks to grandmamma and her friends. While The Witch interprets its ending positively, Hereditary's finale is a button to a tragedy, as the film telegraphs early on in a classroom setting. Like the Greek tragic hero they discuss, Peter is unaware of all the signs in the story pointing to his doom. But if Peter's possession is the climax of a sad and tragic tale--the dissolution of a family because of a selfish, greedy, manipulative, and evil grandmother--does it endorse the demonic themes or does it make it one of the most unnerving horror films of the year?
Maybe I fear it is dangerous to tell this type of story where, simply, the purest form of evil reigns. If I were nonreligious and lacked Christian beliefs, I know I could digest this better, but I cannot not believe some of this stuff exists, and it stirs my heart poorly when the diametric opposition to Christ is shown victorious as it is here. Even The Conjuring Universe, which takes the demonic very seriously and shows scary situations, is about the opposition of Holy and Evil. And even in an installment like Annabelle: Creation where evil wins, there's the knowledge that the Christian Warrens will conquer the demons in the other films, or that this failure was due to an immature faith and caused by damning foolishness. Hereditary presents mortals in a demonic web where hope and goodness have vanished long ago. The fracture of the family made them open targets for the powers of Hell.
How should I read this as a man of faith? A cautionary tale or a celebration of the profane? I'm hesitant to make a final verdict. What's undeniable is that Toni Collette should get nominated for an Oscar and Aster is a darn good creator of intense sequences and builder of tension. I think the horror genre can produce the most excitingly effective direction from film artists (e.g. David F. Sandberg) and convey messages like no other genre (see: Get Out); I know Hereditary does the first but does it the second? As a Christian, I find the best supernatural horror is a reminder of the dark reality of a life about from God and the rejection of salvation, and I got that here. As a Christian watching Hereditary, I also saw the bleakness in the mortal life when Christ is not the center.
Bitterness, unforgiveness, and fear drove a family apart; there was no love. Annie thought she could save her family alone, but this pride was her last act lucid. Perhaps the film is about the tendency for home conditions to continue from generation to generation. Distrust and estrangement defined Annie's home lives--with mother, with husband and children--just as mental illness was passed down. In the end, the inability to address these issues--ignoring them until they broke every last member down--seasoned with death and grief made them free to be overwhelmed and consumed by Hell itself. It's disturbing, uncomfortably, and terrifying to watch, but shouldn't it be? Hereditary is a tragedy; we would be wise to address the naked sins we hide in the shadows, present them before the one Hope the characters forgot, and learn that love before we walk into our own tragedies.
Perhaps, as with that Greek hero, the signs were in front of us the whole time.
Maybe that's just the way I read the movie. Maybe I'm reaching. I'm not sure. Maybe a rewatch will help me plug in the missing pieces in my discernment of the film's meaning, but it's not a film I particularly want to see again anytime soon because of how intense and disturbing it can be. I'm curious what your thoughts on the film were if you saw it, or if you didn't care to see it, how you read all this? What film had you conflicted most and what was your final thoughts on it? Whatever you have to say about me or the movies, comment below!