SXSW 2018 Review: HEREDITARY Paints A Savage Portrayal Of Family Lineage

Director Ari Aster assaults the senses by tapping into humanistic themes through a unique craftsmanship of tension and trauma.

The horror genre is cathartic. It allows the audience to safely witness terror while visually conveying a story that resonates on a primitive level. Fear, grief, and guilt are universal experiences that make up our innate human nature. While these feelings are inescapable, horror films offer an art form that serves as a coping mechanism - a way to face issues that will always be a part of life while also validating they exist. Ari Aster’s directorial debut, Hereditary, forces viewers to confront these emotions in a straight-up frightening style. It’s evident that Aster possesses an intrinsic craftsmanship and ability to deliver a strikingly effective array of horror film techniques. His brutal directorial debut ravages the things we fear losing control over the most - our family, our minds, and our bodies.

Hereditary begins on the morning of a funeral as Annie Graham (Toni Collette), an artist who creates miniature models, is preparing to bury her estranged mother. Her good-intentioned husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne); teenage son, Peter (Alex Wolff); and aloof daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) quietly listen while Annie divulges the secretive and cryptic nature of her mother. Additional information on her family’s unfortunate lineage is disclosed slowly and meticulously. We learn more about her past when she is awkwardly pressured in group therapy to disclose the reasons for her attendance - eventually finding solace in one particular attendee, played by Ann Dowd. These scenes exhibit the first signs of comedic relief that end up being necessary mercies Aster thankfully bestows upon viewers. Without these small bursts of dark humor, the film is ruthless in its assault on the senses. 

Attempting to deal with loss, the family turns inward with their eccentric coping devices. Annie utilizes miniature art as a means to process tragedy while Charlie draws and constructs figurines out of salvaged materials from the woods. A vital turning point in the film takes place when Charlie accompanies her older brother to a party. Suffering from a life-threatening nut allergy, she experiences a reaction that catapults the family into disarray, thus setting the stage for the rest of the film. The accurate portrayal of anaphylaxis provides a unique form of foreshadowing from a health condition that isn’t usually addressed on screen in its true severity. Throughout the film, struggles to gain control over one’s body and mind are prevalent by referencing schizophrenia, sleep-walking, unwanted pregnancy, and possession. Therefore, utilizing a food allergy reaction as the catalyst to initiate a downward spiral and loss of control is an astute plot-point choice. Continuous obscurity between free will and destined design due to their genetic make-up ensues, bringing up the question: how much of their experience is mental illness and how much is supernatural?

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away because yes, there are paranormal elements; but this is not a generic ghost story, nor is it your standard family drama. There is a lot to unpack with Hereditary, almost to a fault, as it slowly unfolds the Graham family’s secrets. It’s an ambitious film debut containing several layers and potential interpretations mostly due to its convoluted delivery. The film really shines with the technical methods Aster utilizes in order to convey the family’s descent into subsequent peril. The use of miniatures is a metaphor that further supports the commanding nature of outside forces at work. Continuous camera shots zoom into the small house - an exact replica of the family’s home - and cut quickly from the dollhouse to reality. The camera work is a character in and of itself. The shots are ominous, and grow gradually invasive. The lens evokes a sense that a malevolent presence is seeping into their lives and as the film progresses, the shots become increasingly erratic. The gore is fairly scarce but when present, will scar your retinas. Nightmare sequences and violence are depicted organically through use of special effects make-up. The film has limited CGI which further supports the craftsmanship placed into the execution.

Sound design is also a marvel. Composer Colin Stetson, best known for his collaborations with Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, primarily utilizes clarinets, bass and alto saxophone, along with the french horn and trumpet. The menacing melodies produce an impressive sense of dread and psychological distress. There are also simplicities that exist. Charlie has a signature verbal click that serves as an indication of her presence - the film’s own form of a death rattle - that is reminiscent of the croaking noise utilized in The Grudge. Additionally, there are moments where sound is absent altogether. This technique is extremely effective in conveying catatonic shock produced by trauma and the painful nature of emotional suppression. Aster uses silence to manipulate, tease, and assault the audience. He forces you to sit in the pain of the characters, stay in that moment with them, and really immerse yourself into the psychological impact of the film. This is all for the sake of emotional gravity and saturated tension, as opposed to just littering the film with cheap jump scares.

The story is a family drama at its core. Use of paranormal horror is secondary, but provides a layer necessary to emphasize the cold-blooded nature of its themes and character-driven plot. At times, the narrative is predictable, and the third act culminates in a fashion that is not entirely cohesive. However, the combination of incredibly raw acting, technical devices, and special effects kept me vividly engaged throughout. The atmospheric terror justifies the film’s place alongside other A24 gems such as The Witch and The Blackcoat’s Daughter. A domestic tragedy that evolves into supernatural horror, Hereditary is a gruesome portrayal of not being able to choose the family you are born into and struggling with the subsequent lack of control over what your heritage has in store. Its artistic savagery mirrors life’s unavoidable cruelties. Like trauma, this film will most likely follow you and take on different meanings over time. Consider yourself encouraged to check it out, but also sufficiently warned.