Midsommar , the sophomore film from Ari Aster is due out in a couple of weeks I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about his feature debut and why I love and fear it as much as I do. Please be advised that there are plenty of spoilers for Hereditary and mild spoilers for:
The Wicker Man
“Catastrophizing” is a term used by mental health professionals to describe patterns in thought where every situation is expected to end as badly as possible. You didn’t make that doctor’s appointment because your test results are going to show that you have cancer. If you cut out a toxic person from your life then they will spiral into depression and kill themselves. Your partner didn’t react to something the way you intended and now they’re going to dump you, if they ever even loved you at all. If you confess that you can’t cope with the stress of your job, you will be fired and end up living on the street. It is a paralyzing and often devastating way to live, taking the whole world on your back, that your weakness will destroy everything you know. Hereditary is that state of mind taking the form of a horror film. Put another way, it is the horror of the Worst Case Scenario.
Hereditary is a brilliantly acted, heart-rendingly tragic film dealing with family trauma, grief and loss. We are introduced to the central family at what is already a low point for them, the loss of a beloved matriarch. Toni Collette’s Annie is the bereaved daughter who simply cannot emotionally cope with what is happening in part due to her own past family trauma. She is an artist, a particular kind of artist who creates incredibly detailed miniature dioramas. This seems to be how she deals with the stresses of motherhood and grief, recreating static versions of her life that allow her some perverse sense of control over them. The passing of her mother is compounded when her son Peter, a troubled teenage boy, accidentally kills his little sister Charlie in a horrifying car accident. This only amplifies just how dysfunctional this family is as Annie completely unravels and drags her son and husband into a morass of desperation, paranoia and conspiracy. To say it ends badly would be a gigantic understatement.
While we’re being emotionally torn to shreds by the superb performances of the lead cast we are also being filled dread by everything that gets dredged up. Annie’s strange relationship with her mother, the odd behavior of Charlie, the alienation and terrorizing of Peter, the terrified powerlessness of Steve (Gabriel Byrne), the audience sees it all. As things continue to build the audience begins to learn far more of what is going on than the characters. With the benefit of a detached perspective the audience is privy to Annie being manipulated, of seeing Peter slowly start to crumble, and the intentions of seemingly friendly faces being masks for horrific ends. Then as we surge into the third act everything comes together and rather than leave the audience grasping at straws to understand what is happening, instead Hereditary spells it out for us in painstaking detail.
It’s rare that we get truly devastating, downbeat endings in major North American cinema, even in genre film. This is something that is far more prevalent in European film where the suspense that builds is to something truly horrible. Edward Woodward screaming to his god for help as he burns, a child throwing themselves from a car to be with their deceased parents, a man being crowned by a cult after being tricked into murdering his son, the woman succeeding in cutting a baby literally from the womb of its mother. What these examples, and other downbeat films like It Follows and The Witch do is rob us of our release from the film’s torment but in ways that feel earned. If you watch George Romero’s original Dead trilogy you know that there’s a good chance that nobody will escape because he has spent the whole film building up those odds against the protagonists. Films with flash “shock” endings out of nowhere that do nothing to build to them can ruin what was otherwise a good film (it rhymes with “Rye Mention”). While Hereditary is ostensibly a family drama, Ari Aster even argues it’s not a horror film, it builds the dread and horror to such a fever pitch that the final scenes are all the more horrifying and upsetting. Not only are things bad, but they’re also literally the very worst version of what they could possibly be.
There has been criticism directed at Hereditary for how long it spends in the final act of the film explaining what is happening. My favorite film critic Mark Kermode felt that the film stumbles in the third act and talked about how it “replaced atmosphere [with] superfluous plot exposition.” So frequently in horror, an over-abundance of explanation and slowing the film down to explain everything can ruin a film. This is especially the case in horror because part of the experience is not knowing. Often the best way a horror film can handle that pulling back of the curtain is to show there are five more curtains behind it. The goal should be that instead of providing the viewer with some sort of comfort in the knowledge, what they see should only lead to more questions. Us was a particularly good example of this. Unfortunately, the opposite of this happens, be it the lengthy origin story for Micahel Myers in the Rob Zombie remake of Halloween or Patricia Belcher showing up in Jeepers Creepers out of nowhere to tell us exactly what the Creeper is. I will always prefer the original Japanese Ringu over Gore Verbinski’s The Ring because the minimalist style of storytelling of the former will always trump the need to oversalt the pot with long periods dedicated entirely to exposition. Though both films have similar outcomes the grim reality that the genie can’t be put back in the bottle is just more effective in Hideo Nakata’s original.
Hereditary is an enormous exception to this rule. We don’t just get a huge dump of information in that final act but the exposition becomes relentless. Every last little thing that could have seemed to have some sinister underpinning is exactly that, the overarching plot of an evil woman to destroy her family so that she can be rewarded literally by a demon. The death of a child being used to hideously manipulate a desperate woman into doing things that doom her and her family. Every horrible thing that we have seen was planned by sadistic, monstrous people. Everybody is evil, those who would stand in their way will die, and they will succeed in their diabolical scheme to give new life to a demonic figure.
I purport that the style of exposition in Hereditary creates the opposite effect that it normally would. Those parts of the movie when the murderer is revealed and their intentions communicated are moments of relief for the audience. As tense as the movie can still be as it heads to the climax, the audience finally has context for what is happening. We know why this is happening and it provides a cushioning effect for the audience. That’s why when a horror film does not explain the motivation or reasoning for the horrors they are witnessing it is frequently all the more unsettling. What Ari Aster does with Hereditary however is that cushion of plot exposition was really just a pillowcase full of rocks. We are beaten over the head with the sheer depth and scope of what is really going on. Much like the model of the house we see throughout the movie, the roots run deep, far deeper than we could have imagined.
It is a nightmare for those of us that catastrophize, that every last terrible thing we could imagine can and will happen and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We are even implicit in it, our fear of it sadly making us powerless. That is the lasting effect of Hereditary, the horror of The Worst Case Scenario.
images borrowed from Bloody Disgusting dot com