From an A24 drought to two A24 films within a couple of weeks (you can find the other one here). Critics have loved Hereditary, the feature film directorial debut for Ari Aster. Audiences, on the other hand, have given it a D+ Cinemascore which I found incredibly encouraging. Yes, encouraging. Typically, the less general audiences enjoy a film (especially a horror film) when the critics love it, the better – and more intelligent – the film ends up being. The last horror film audiences loved was A Quiet Place, which lacked significantly deep thought to support its own premise and left me feeling underwhelmed. (Though, to be fair, critics liked that one, too. My review is here.) So, going in with the knowledge that casual moviegoers don’t seem crazy about Hereditary, I felt pretty confident that A24 had probably done something special with the film. I was absolutely right.
By design, Hereditary is very much two films. This is an art house horror film, not a traditional horror film. The brain must be fully engaged at all times if the viewer wishes to comprehend the events that unfold on-screen. Upon leaving the theater after the film’s conclusion, I overheard two girls in front of me discussing what they had seen. The first said something along the lines of, “I still don’t understand anything that was going on.” The second replied with, “Can’t help you there!” My frustration with general audiences (that you regular readers have certainly picked up on, by now) lies in that very conversation and the fact that neither of those two viewers will likely put one more moment of thought into the film and are perfectly content to never even attempt to crack the movie. In fact, they will possibly even blame the movie itself for their confusion (though I didn’t pick that up in their demeanor. Many, many moviegoers are guilty of such trespasses, though.) If that’s you, don’t bother. But if you like to be challenged both intellectually and emotionally, strap yourself in tight.
The film is as much drama as horror, especially for the first two acts. Act one almost entirely consists of dramatic groundwork being laid, establishing relationships and character histories so that the eventual payoff carries weight. The film opens with the obituary for the mother of Toni Collette’s (The Sixth Sense) Annie. Without going into details, the death hits Annie hard and affects the rest of her family – husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne, The Usual Suspects), son Peter (Alex Wolff, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) – to various degrees. From there begins a chain of events that would be disserviced by putting them into print. But everything Annie knows and holds dear is threatened to degrees she never dreamed possible.
I can admit that the film starts off somewhat methodically, with little insight as to exactly where the narrative is heading. Personally, I like not knowing what to expect, but it’s likely that many viewers will spend the first thirty minutes or so internally demanding that the film just “get on with it” and/or “do something scary”. There are small flashes of horror in that first chunk of the story but, again, most of the beginning is drama. So be it. Drop the entitlement, sit back, and let the filmmakers tell you THEIR story, not your story. And be careful what you wish for because, when the horror happens, it’s brutal, merciless, and shocking.
Throughout all of this, the first two acts serve as a harsh, but understanding look at loss and survivor’s guilt. We have all suffered loss and pain, but these characters have experienced and are experiencing pain to a degree that I have never personally lived through but have always feared. They blame themselves and they blame each other while also straining to keep a firm grasp on the love they feel as they attempt to hold their family together. Along the way, both Alex Wolff and Toni Collette give noteworthy performances, with Collette handily being strong enough to earn an Academy Award nomination. She won’t get one. The Academy will completely ignore and overlook Hereditary. But she deserves one. I feel confident that I’ll be revisiting this in early 2019.
For the third act, the film really cuts loose. Aster drops all pretenses of metaphor and transitions the film into pure, literal, supernatural horror. At this point, the film becomes that which many more mainstream viewers were wanting for two straight hours. Here, there are some undeniably creepy moments, solid scares, and frightening visuals. But Aster still resists making things easy. He gives the audience all the information they need to understand what’s transpiring but those who zone out during the setup – those who take time during the film to ponder if they got any new Instagram likes or if that cute Billy guy from gym class has sent them a text since the movie began – are punished for their transgressions. There is no conveniently-placed scene of expository dialogue to neatly tie everything up and reward those who can’t focus for a mere two hours. If you think and listen, you’ll get it. If not, you won’t. And that’s just the way it should be.
I can truly see this film functioning on several different levels for viewers of different life experiences. For any who have suffered tragic, traumatic loss, this film may serve to remind them that they aren’t alone, though only after potentially causing those old wounds to resurface. For others, such as myself, it can function as a precursor to the losses we will all eventually experience, even if not to the degree depicted with the story – the ones we fear and imagine but have no idea how to handle, should they occur. This almost-therapeutic component on the film puts it on another level and characterizes just why A24 consistently finds their films the focus of so much praise and conversation.
Look, I enjoy the old-school, brainless horror films of yesteryear as much as anyone. They can still be fun, even today. But film is evolving and A24 continues to be at the forefront of that evolution. Not satisfied with something safe or easy, with Hereditary, the studio and Aster offer up something much more fulfilling for audiences who want some meat and potatoes before their dessert. In a year without Infinity War, Hereditary would be my favorite movie of the year. Even still, I declare it to be the best, if not my favorite, of 2018, so far. A24 continues to break boundaries, think outside the box, and make films for people who don’t just say they want something original in order to make themselves to look good, but for people who say it and mean it.
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