On processing grief, familial distortions, and encountering the uncanny in Hereditary
Director: Ari Aster
Screenplay: Ari Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Gabriel Byrne, Ann Dowd, Milly Shapiro and Mallory Bechtel
Rated R / 2 hours, 7 minutes / 2:1
June 8, 2018
(out of four)
Toward the end of Ari Aster's 2016 short film C'est La Vie, its sole character - a Los Angeles vagabond discussing his life in a distinctly Carlin-esque ranting monologue - solemnly offers the following: "You know what Freud says about the nature of horror? He says it's when the home becomes un-home-like."
Translation being as imprecise as it is, the term is commonly accepted to be closest in meaning to "uncanny" - or at least that's the way it's been predominantly interpreted in English-language publications of Freud's essays (namely 1919's The Uncanny) that touch on the subject. Aster's choice to use the more literal translation of unheimlich seems innocuous in a vacuum but significant in light of his small but revealing body of work - seven shorts and, in Hereditary, one feature - which shows a heavy preoccupation with the home as a Petri dish of unnatural horrors. Families are conspicuously out of balance, parents' relationships to their children warped and contaminated.
I confess, my initial reaction to Hereditary - his much-hyped feature debut that premiered at Sundance in January - was indifferently lukewarm. I didn't entirely trust this reaction, not because of the reputation that preceded the film but because I couldn't quite articulate what didn't work about it. Not entirely, anyway. Watching Aster's short films afterward is what unlocked it for me. Perhaps, for review purposes, this is cheating. But having a firmer understanding of an artist's aesthetic always better allows you to get on the right wavelength, and in this case that made a difference. For starters, I wasn't sure about the film's sense of humor - or if it even had one. Aster's shorts leave no such doubt, their mordant qualities retrospectively instructive in understanding the wry pitch at which much of Hereditary operates. Which, in turn, loosened up its approach to horror into something more indelibly, psychologically off-key than I initially recognized.
And so the uncanny emerges, the familiar becoming unfamiliar in disquieting, even surreal ways. Aster's cinematic homes are filled with distorted versions of love, emotional and physical invasions, family members harming one another in ways that don't quite seem like they could, or should, be real. Or allowed. The Strange Thing About the Johnsons features a sexual relationship between father and son and a droll reversal of their power dynamics - the son being the authority figure, the browbeater, the strict disciplinarian waiting in his living-room chair as Dad tries to sneak out of the house. The meek, subservient father is always trying to hide, always scared of being caught - of Son coming into his room at the wrong time. In Munchausen, a loving suburban mother keeps her beloved son from going off to college by poisoning him. The cheerfully bright tone and color scheme is expressed via Pixar-like montage, its high melodrama punctured by Hitchcockian shot choices, with absurd details (like the mother's bottled potions, Feel-Bad and Feel-Good, as if she got them off a truck in a 19th Century medicine show) deployed to dovetail precisely with the intersection of those competing impulses.
It's revealing not only about Aster's comedic sensibility but his approach to genre. He can't seem to resist grinning through his most sinister plot machinations, as if lightly mocking his characters for daring to take their plights seriously. (I don't mean this as a criticism; framing tragedy as comedy is a deliciously high-risk balancing act.) He's constantly tugging at their fraught emotional states of mind, toying with the seriousness with which it's all ostensibly meant to be taken. Domestic horror as a mischievous lark. In some of his shorts he subjects his genres (and his characters) to more extreme forms of lampooning. The Turtle's Head features overtly stylized noir voiceover that sounds almost authentically hard-boiled, at least until we hear certain turns of phrase that don't actually make much sense. And then, all of a sudden, the seedy detective story is completely abandoned and the film becomes entirely about the private dick desperately grappling with the realization that his penis is shrinking.
As opposed to the recent indie prestige-horror filmmakers to which he's been compared, Aster is more prone to Lynchian impulses, especially in Beau and Strange Thing. Lynch and Hitchcock are commonly expected reference points in the arsenal of a young filmmaker (for that matter, so is Freud), but the personally peculiar way they come across in his work give them more weight than mere influence or homage.
What sticks out most is his mean streak. True to various other examples from his short films, there's a real cruelty to Hereditary, both in the general way he likes to twist the knife and, more importantly, the way he keeps offering characters means of respite or escape, only to violently snatch it away. The characters follow suit. Things are said at dinner tables that cannot be taken back. The central family in this movie is not just fraying - it's seemingly been frayed from the beginning. All that's left are dangling threads - children possibly unwanted by their parents and vice versa; one family member filling the role intended to be filled by another. At the center of it all is Annie (Toni Collette), who opens the film offering a tepid, conflicted eulogy for her recently departed mother, a mysterious woman to whom Annie had been largely estranged prior to her death. Left grieving along with her is the odd, creatively inclined 13-year-old Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and her older brother Peter (Alex Wolff). Peter loves his mother but they have a somewhat distant relationship; there's a hint about an incident some time ago. And even Charlie seems to have been closer to her grandmother than to Annie. The family's calming influence is the father, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and over the course of these many weeks, and these 127 minutes, this family will indeed require the services of a calming influence. That would be an understatement.
As Annie - well, everyone, but Annie in particular - tries to find ways to deal with her grief, she finds a support group (which she only sporadically attends), and there meets Joan (Ann Dowd), who offers both her empathy and, eventually, an unlikely therapeutic promise involving ritualistic communion with the dead. With respect to the always-welcome presence of Ann Dowd, this is one of a few instances of the film marrying its unique familial dread with more typical horror conventions that ultimately signify a lot less than meets the eye. It's as if Aster, in extending his work to feature length for the first time, is trying to force the issue by relying on too many shopworn horror cliches. The Joan subplot is mostly a waste, in particular because it's really only relevant for one (initially discreet) purpose, despite taking up a decent portion of the story and constantly announcing itself as something of greater importance, both for character and plot. The ending is similarly anticlimactic. Even The Strange Thing About the Johnsons struggled to resolve itself in narrative terms, giving us an eventful but generally dull resolution that was interesting only in the way it reversed (or rather, continued its reversals of) its Oedipal themes.
Meanwhile, Hereditary's connection to Freud becomes more pronounced as it goes along - though it's hard to say if that's the nature of Aster's influences or the nature of the genre itself. The Uncanny specifically references - in ways unusually relevant here - "haunted" houses, and demonic spirits, and severed heads, and communicating with the souls of the departed. The nature of Hereditary's horror finds articulation in all of those ideas - all of which take place in, and revolve around, the family home and the family unit. Then again, whether Aster is deliberately using the items specified in that essay, or if it's the fact that horror itself tends to touch on those ideas anyway, I can't say.
In terms of his formal approach, there's an eerie beauty to it even as he struggles to make all of his motifs as relevant as he wants them to be. Annie is an artist who sculpts autobiographical miniature dioramas, which places the film within her point of view even though, in a lot of ways, it's really not. So much of what's happening in this film is kept from her. You know those movies where the main character is a writer, in a sort of obligatory, barely-self-aware sort of way? Yeah, it's kinda like that, except in this case the art form at least has a nifty visual utility.
The explicit honesty of some of her creations - which Steve, in one scene, finds to be an abominable and even dangerous use of her artistry - often boil down to her processing her trauma, and grief, and her own latent self-loathing about everything that has come to befall her family. That lingering guilt is a distraction from the actual horror, or vice versa - and ultimately Hereditary suggests that all this despair and all this agony is really just the symptom of a more malevolent trick, long in the works and out of everyone's control. That - the guilt that finds no reprieve, the trauma that finds no closure - is Aster's cruelest stroke of all.