2 out of 5
Directed by: Ari Aster
Are we, as genre fans, so desperate for legitimacy that any horror flick – and sure, director / writer Ari Aster may describe it otherwise, but this is a spook film like any other – any horror flick with elements of “credibility” (casting Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne; being distributed by A24) automatically must be the scariest and most genius thing ever? Are critics so desirous of wanting to be seen as “hep” that they’ll embrace the same, thus able to claim that they, too, dig on horror?
I don’t know. The recent films of this nature have ranged from, in my opinion, good (A Quiet Place) to frustrating (It Follows), all flawed to varying degrees, and not coming close to really flooring me, either as fright flicks or technical accomplishments. I can admit to some bias in some cases (Babadook), despite doing my best to avoid reviews and such, and in some case I get fueled up on the hype, leading to disappointment (The Witch), but more often than not I go in cold. As was the case with Hereditary. From which I emerged with disdain.
I do agree that this can be typified, along with horror, as a family drama: of tensions beneath the surface that boil over in the wake of a death. Mom Annie (Collette), dad Steve (Byrne), son Peter (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (Millie Shapiro) are introduced to us after Annie’s mother has just passed away. Through support groups, through distraught family dinners, through acerbic chatter, through Annie’s career of miniature making, we come to understand the fractured (occasionally non-existent) relationship Annie had with her mother and how that history has fed into her current life. Nothing is spelled out, and the “horror” of the family unit is palpable, and affecting, crescendoed with a tense score by Colin Stetson. Aster also plays up Anne’s career visually, with the intro shot panning into a dollhouse which exactly mimics the opening scene, and some exterior shots looking more like faux constructions than actual locations, and none of the family members looks like they really belong together, all adding to a sense of “offness.” So there’s value here.
Furthermore, when a second tragedy hits, it is goddamned shocking, no debate, and all those little cracks in the family’s relationships start getting wider, and then events start to spiral further into horror territory…
…But, like, woefully traditional horror territory. That the film descends into “strange things happening” might’ve worked had the What’s Real / What’s Fake concept been played up more, but instead, Hereditary goes for over-explainy, over-justify-y, and you start catching signs too early into the process of Aster forcefully connecting pieces and holding shots on pointless things that we have to recognize will be important a few steps down the road. Sequestered to a concluding portion of the film, this tonal / pacing turn would be tolerable, but the movie is 2 hours long, and we take said turn at least partway through. So once you start rolling your eyes, you’ll be rolling them for a while.
Furthermore, nearly from the opening shots, I didn’t care one bit about any family member. They’re not obnoxious by any means, but nor are they particularly endearing. So their plight wasn’t grabbing, and when it becomes difficult for them, I have no reason to want to watch them go through that. I also found that Charlie’s character, written as seemingly being on the spectrum, had no plot justifiable reason for that beyond giving us a vocal tick that could help to identify the character if off screen. So… it just felt damned manipulative.
Rack that up, and you have unpleasant characters forced through illogical events: not a successful formula. And spin this up without Collette, and you’d pretty much have a very standard thriller / horror film with a lot of frustrating artifice replacing visual genre trappings.