The first time I was ever introduced to the work of Ari Aster was in 2010 when I watched his demented short “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons.” Much like “Hereditary,” it’s a very disturbing tale that focuses on a family and a heinous secret among the family that threatens to consume them whole. My words do the short no justice. “Hereditary” is very much in that vein, exploring the terror of mental illness, the idea of manifest destiny, the inescapable fate of inherited disease, and how overbearing and abusive loved ones can keep their power over us long after they’ve passed away.
“Hereditary” is unlike any other narrative in that the minute we meet the Graham family, they’re less the center of the story, and more instruments of events that unfold. This adds to the elements of lack of free will that is recurring in “Hereditary.”
When we meet Annie Graham, she’s the obsessive maker of miniatures whose immense talent is transforming in to a bonafide profession, and much like her models, her life begins to play out among what may be a life that’s being manipulated by unseen forces. While what’s happening to the Graham family is insidious, what’s even worse is that the threat of mental illness threatens to consume this already rocky family whose foundation will add to their demise if they’re not careful. After Annie’s mother Ellen passes away, she and her family attend her funeral, still somewhat mystified by what happened during her last days on Earth. After a terrible past with her dad and brother, Annie attempts to make sense of her mother who she barely knew and kept her daughter Charlie close by. Once the confrontation of their mother’s death presents itself, the reality around the family begins to unravel, particularly for Ellen.
A lot of “Hereditary” explores the trauma and psychological disorders that can be passed on from generation to generation, and how much of a burden that can be. Annie is particularly a woman unprepared for what she’s facing and her reaction to what she tries to control and what she fails to control is compelling. Aster derives brilliant performances from his entire cast including Alex Wolff, Joanne Dowd, and Milly Shapiro. Toni Collette, ion particular, is riveting, presenting a beautiful turn as a woman struggling to make sense of something that may have absolutely no rhyme or reason. Director and writer Aster unfolds his story’s elements intricately with thick ambiguity injected in every scene and every bit of secret that the characters begin to dig up. Aster presents the unearthing of these secrets as inevitabilities and asks the audience to ultimately decide if what we’re watching is the realization of pure evil, or the culmination of generations of mental disorders thrust on to these characters.
While pure evil manifested in the flesh is horrifying, the senseless and unforgiving nature of mental illness deteriorating all of our senses and making us a danger is just as scary. There’s always a sense of motion and unease in every frame of “Hereditary,” and Aster thrives on keeping the audience squirming in their seats through the duration. He relies a lot on delayed shocks and while “Hereditary” excels as a disturbing horror film, it’s also a gripping take on familial dysfunction and the fear of one becoming what they despise most. “Hereditary” is destined to be a classic for film lovers that delight in exploring and dissecting horror cinema that also looks in to the human condition.