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Home Is Where The Hell Is: The Familial Horror Of Ari Aster’s Hereditary
Brian Raven Ehrenpreis , June 16th, 2018 08:54

In Ari Aster's Hereditary, Brian Raven Ehrenpreis finds a horror film that truly delivers – on multiple levels. Contains mild spoilers

“None can shake off a sense of having free will… But we cannot feel ourselves as determined. (One philosopher has said, and possibly more have thought to themselves: 'Can one really believe in determinism without going insane?') Being determined in thought and deed is not experientially noticeable, only abstractly deducible. It would be impossible for someone to say, “I am nothing but a human puppet.” ― Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race

The experience of watching Ari Aster’s new horror film Hereditary is akin to viewing footage of a ritual slaughter filmed from the perspective of the livestock. It’s a film that subsists on the little anxieties and aggressions that breed within the family unit, and the madness and grief that are attendant with the loss of a loved one.

Hereditary is very much a slow burn film that takes its time to develop as it feeds off of the emotional agony of its characters. Aster creates an atmosphere of dread so oppressive and inescapable that for the majority of his film’s runtime it feels as if your chest is being crushed by a leaden weight. Just as the tension in the film ratchets up to seemingly unbearable levels it bursts, coating the audience in a sanguinary spray of images including hellish decapitations, immolations, and insect eaten bodies.

So yes, lets get this out of the way first: Hereditary delivers. Ari Aster’s first feature is one of the most impressive, atmospheric, technically assured, and nerve-shredding horror films to be released in years.

Tracing the life of a family whose bonds begin to disintegrate after the death of their matriarch, Hereditary owes as much to the domestic dramas of Mike Leigh as it does to the insular paranoia of Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy. The most disturbing and powerful sequences in Aster’s film aren’t actually linked to anything supernatural at all, but instead revolve around the emotional violence the various characters inflict on one another as they squabble, rationalize, and deal with the all annihilating grief that has descended on their household like one of the biblical plagues.

The film opens with death, as Annie Graham (Toni Collette) – a gallery artist known for her intricate miniature dioramas – prepares to bury her mother Ellen. Ellen was a manipulative and highly secretive person and we learn that the two women had a difficult and highly fraught relationship. Working through her grief at a group therapy session, we watch as she recounts tales of her mother’s cruelty and possessiveness as she struggles to move on and release herself from the burdens of guilt and blame that the death has saddled her with.

The more we learn of Annie’s mother, the more we begin to realize something is deeply wrong with this family. Annie speaks of her mother Ellen’s cruelty, and of the disturbing history of her family. We learn how Ellen’s husband starved himself to death while suffering from a severe bout of depression, and how her son hung himself in his bedroom after leaving a suicide note accusing her of “trying to put people inside him.” We learn of Ellen’s unhealthy obsession with Annie’s children, particularly with her son Peter (Alex Wolff) who she managed to keep away from her malignant influence, and of her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), who was not so lucky in that regard.

Though dead, Annie’s mother casts a spectral pall over the film as her malign intentions wend their way from the world of the dead to that of the living. In Hereditary, some characters are haunted by guilt and some are haunted by actual spirits. Sometimes there is little difference in the distinction.

It’s clear that Aster is deeply cine-literate, and Hereditary is drawing its structural sustenance from films like Takashi Miike’s squirm-inducing horror classic Audition (1999), Nicolas Roeg’s seminal chiller Don’t Look Now (1973) and Ben Wheatley’s path-breaking Kill List (2011). Like these films, Hereditary also begins in one genre and ends in another entirely. In Audition, Miike focuses on a widower trying to move on after the death of his wife as he reenters the dating scene. In Don’t Look Now, Roeg lays bare the psychic wounds of a married couple attempting to live in the wake of the accidental death of their young daughter. In Kill List, Wheatley tells the story of a hit man, recovering from an emotionally scarring mission, who brings his traumas and anxieties back home with him.

All of these films share the distinction of being structural ‘genre-jumpers,’ taking large left turns off the beaten path – swerving from one genre into another – but they share more than that: they are all thematically focused on the ways in which loss and trauma colour and distort our reality, invite catastrophe into our lives, disrupt our relationships with family and friends, and force us to face up to truths about our emotional existences that are by any definition abjectly horrific.

Emotional agony hangs over Annie’s household like a storm cloud and as the film progresses the characters appear more and more psychologically frayed. Annie’s husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), self-medicates with alcohol and pills as he tries to play referee to the brutal tension always simmering just beneath a full boil between his wife and son. Aster’s film is laudable in the ways in which it portrays family dynamics, and in particular the way it portrays motherhood and the complex interpersonal dynamics that occur in the relationships between mothers and their children.

Taboo-busting in the extreme, Hereditary’s portrayal of maternal ambivalence and resentment – specifically the resentment Annie feels towards her son Peter – is incredibly satisfying to watch, as it is something that is almost never allowed to exist in mainstream cinema. Annie reveals to Peter that she never wanted to be his mother in the first place and tells him that even after having him she did not immediately “feel like a mother.” Extending grace towards Annie and towards motherhood more broadly, Aster’s script affords her a sympathy that our society generally does not extend to mothers who are not the perfect image of idealised self-sacrificing saints.

Seeing a mother portrayed with the level of emotional intricacy Aster gives Annie is something too seldom seen. It presents a much needed corrective to the tired filmic archetype of mothers as figures incapable of feeling anything but pure unbridled love for their children. On top of this, the level of craft Toni Colette brings to the role of Annie is simply astounding, and watching her overwrought intensity on screen can feel like the emotional equivalent of watching a woman being flayed alive before your very eyes. Hereditary is a film where grief and trauma can transform a person entirely and Colette’s performance is so nuanced, lived-in, and utterly convincing that you never once question that you are actually watching her slide from lucidity into a totalizing delirium. There is something raw, propulsive, and mesmerising about her screen presence – especially in the scenes where she is playing off the equally excellent Alex Wolff – that feels unbearably real.

Colette’s Annie is allowed to exist on screen as more than simply a mother, a daughter, or a wife. She is an artist, famed for her miniature work. Painstakingly recreating scenes of emotional torment, such as her mother dying in a hospice bed or a particularly tragic accident involving one of her children, she uses her detailed replicas to try and reassert a sense of control over a life that she feels has never fully been hers to lead – fashioning in miniature events that are simply too tragic and emotionally unwieldy to confront in any other fashion.

It makes sense that Annie’s art is thematically linked to a desire on her part to reassert control, as Hereditary is largely about losing control over our lives and the disturbing recognition that we likely never had much control to begin with. It is a film with some seriously nasty ontological insinuations concerning fate, predestination, and the illusion of free will, and it makes a strong argument in favour of blood being destiny. While Hereditary is full of demonic horrors, it is most terrifying when it is operating in this register, when it is suggesting that whatever we do, whatever choices we make in our lives, we can never outrun the legacies our parents have bequeathed us.

Grim, fatalistic, and overdetermined, the view of the self that Aster traces in Hereditary is nothing less than the purest of ontological nightmares, one where we are betrayed from the very moment of birth by the genetic makeup of our bodies and the malefic influences we inherit from our ancestors. As the film builds to a climax that is a rapturous and ecstatic embrace of the darkness inside all of us, we watch as Annie and Peter struggle to loose themselves from the constricting bonds of fate, with each step they take away from death and despair seeming to only lead them closer to their own fated destruction. In Hereditary’s world of blood as destiny, it really couldn’t be any other way.

Hereditary is at cinemas now