Some spoilers ahead so read at your own risk. If you have not seen the film, I suggest you read the review after you’ve seen the movie.
Hereditary was one of my most anticipated movies of 2018. After hearing critics rave about it at Sundance for being one of the scariest films they’ve ever seen, I had a sense that something big was awaiting audiences everywhere. A24 buying the rights to distribute the film affirms A24’s status as a purveyor of good modern horror with an eye for subversive voices, novel ideas and challenging subject matter (The Witch, It Comes At Night). Hereditary is no different. It is difficult to watch, immensely affecting and toes the fine lines between reality and the occult. I really like how Hereditary’s portrayal of mental illness, psychological trauma and depression were so haunting and relentless. That tangible realness of it all made Hereditary feel like more of a psychological drama…which works.
What I found iffy was how it tried to justify its central drama with the supernatural. Ari Aster, director of the film, revealed some things about how his film was meant to be viewed; I disagree with his stance. Hereditary works as a drama about the tragic nature of human frailty; That we seek things (sinister or not) to hold on to when we have lost everything. It doesn’t work, as the generally accepted reading of the film, as a familial tragedy helplessly cursed from a previous generation’s bonds with evil forces. While both interpretations need not contradict, the film’s occult imagery overshadows the more humanistic core of this tragedy.
While its focus may have been a little shaky, Hereditary’s visual and sound design is absolutely phenomenal. Filmed with an endless stream of interesting camera movements and angles, Ari Aster’s film strikes fear in novel ways. An upside-down camera swerve, subtle silhouettes of ghostly figures and the slow reveals of utter chaos and pandemonium combine to make a visual language of things going terribly awry. Toni Colette is so realistic in her portrayal of a mother struggling to get a grip on the life that has constantly hit her with devastating and inhumane trauma. Alex Wolff, who plays her son, stands out in his role as a teenager who is so confused as he sees his carefree drift of youth disintegrate into terrible suffocation and despair. Grasping for some form of hope in this hopeless place, Hereditary sets up the perfect storm for human vulnerability.
Yet, much of the film then shifts toward the trappings of the occult and the supernatural. While it generally still succeeds in being artistic, unconventional and haunting, Hereditary’s decision to dwell in the conventions of conspiracy and ghosts of family’s past certainly overshadowed some of its most powerful themes of human tragedy and psychological trauma. It manages to pull off some extremely shocking and surreal moments as it juggles between more themes it can handle. I just wished it focused less on what is hereditary and fatalistic and directed its focus on the real consequences of human frailty…which is really what lies at the bloodied and horrifying truth of this film.