“Private rituals, private friends, private anxieties…”Review by Lily Taylor
‘Hereditary’ was Ari Aster’s directorial debut and if you’ve seen his subsequent film, ‘Midsommar,’ then you can probably anticipate the psychological horror show that you’re in for. Toni Collette stars as Annie Graham whose secretive and disturbed mother has recently passed away. In the opening scenes she attends the funeral with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), her son Peter (Alex Wolff) and younger daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). It’s clear from the outset that Charlie is a unique child; quiet and withdrawn from other children at school and fascinate by making models, including a delightful one involving a severed birds head. It is mentioned during the funeral that she suffers from a severe peanut allergy and requires an Epipen, which none of the family members ever remember to take with them because hey, why would you? It’s only your child’s life at stake, right?
While Annie seeks to process her mother’s death with the help of a support group, Peter goes out for the evening to a party and takes Charlie along with him, albeit begrudgingly. Once at the party he quickly becomes disinterested in Charlie and leaves her alone to eat cake in the kitchen. This particular cake happens to be contaminated by delicious peanuts causing Charlie to turn into a swollen, red, rasping mess and indirectly results in her death…
Following the loss of her daughter, Annie begins to lean on a friend she met at bereavement support group whilst her relationships with Peter and Steve grow increasingly strained. Annie becomes close with a fellow grieving mother, Joan (Ann Dowd), who teaches her how to hold a séance and communicate with Charlie’s spirit. I think this is the point in the film where things go from a little weird and creepy to full-on horror as each member of the Graham family fight to protect their loved ones and themselves.
I’ll leave the story line there so I don’t totally ruin it for you but fair warning, there will be some spoilers coming up so look away now if you must. I found ‘Hereditary’ a very challenging film to review. There are many aspects of the cinematography, direction and overall attention to detail that I fully appreciated but I almost wish I could review the story line separately because I felt it let the side down a bit.
My absolute favourite element of the cinematography was the dolls house illusion of the Graham household. Annie is a miniature artist so the house is full of tiny models, including a scale model of her own house. This was used brilliantly and alluded to the fact that the characters were under the control of outside forces much like dolls in their dollhouse. Some scenes began by looking at the model of the house and then zooming in to reveal reality and allowing the scene to unfold from there. The attention detail was astonishing, I missed many of the more subtle details first time around if I’m honest (the sign on the telegraph pole- if you know, you know). Peter often looks out towards the tree house from his bed at night and the glowing red lighting of the space heaters are reflected in his eyes; it’s details like this that lets you know Aster is serious about what he’s doing.
Ari Aster plants a lot of subtleties that come full circle in the movie but I think it takes a second viewing to really appreciate them because you are swept up in the nightmare that the Graham family are living in. Toni Collette does a fantastic job of playing Annie and it’s no surprise she won multiple awards for her role as female lead. Her emotive facial expressions and tense body language were reflective of character development and there are scenes in which the audience believes she is truly terrified.
And now for a quick moan…
This film left me with questions and not necessarily in a good way. Aster talks often in interviews about researching around the subject of his films and attempting to base the story line in something real, in this case stories of the devil and well known friend of Satan, King Paimon. The end of the film escalated rapidly into a thoroughly disturbing crescendo, featuring decapitated nudists and burning bodies which is all well and good, but some of us more fastidious viewers were left wanting. The demon Paimon appears to have possessed Charlie’s body all along, and yet she doesn’t seem aware of the fact that she is a demon and presents no awareness when she meets the cult members and devotees that summoned her? The accident that results in Charlie’s death was marked by the seal of Paimon but it seems tenuous that members of her grandmothers satanic cult could have ensured she would accidentally consume peanut that night.