Josiah Morgan’s review published on Letterboxd:
'Punishment is wisdom,' a statement strung over the blackboard of Peter's high school classroom reads. It's a fitting motif for the nastiest movie I've seen in some time; one with very little reprieve, and, furthermore, very little motive for its violence. It's true: Hereditary is a very, very scary movie - but I'm convinced the reasons for its affect come from the gaping flaws in the conception of the film; which made this one of the more bizarre, paradoxical things I've seen lately.
Annie crafts delicate miniatures throughout the film, and Aster chooses to open (and close) on a shot that ties the direct narrative happenings to this mother's artistic projects. This creates a relatively unsubtle symbol that will track through the rest of the film: Annie at times mentions feeling blamed for the awful things that happen around her (and yet, 'within the image,' all things that happen around her have been proven as effects of a cause she built around them), and the film as a text literally, in dialogue blames her mentally ill mother for 'the way her daughter is' (Annie states without hesitance that "she couldn't wait to get her hands on her.") - this is where my issues with Hereditary begin. It's a text that frequently suggests it has a high moral purpose, to absolve a family of guilt and allow a balanced and unbiased audience perspective that is inclusive of all family members even the dead ones. The problem being that the text itself lays the blame early on, with the key visual motif that it constantly finds itself returning to.
That is: Hereditary is a movie about empathizing with a woman's guilt, and more importantly, the guilt of a woman who is not to blame for the things that happen to her; and yet this 'about' happens inside the body of a movie that 'does' create a system that blames her, and proves that she is to blame for the things that happen to her.
Lots of my horror-focal friends have complained about the reticence of big-name horror movies in recent years; their reluctance to commit to genre, and I want to get it out there before I'm asked, which seems inevitable at this rate: yes, I think this is a horror movie through-and-through. My issues have absolutely nothing to do with adherence to genre. That doesn't mean Hereditary is completely innocent in its use of horror imagery, though - mostly, I just find myself asking why this was a horror movie? Over half the runtime plays out as a perfectly balanced family drama; over-expository but delicate and tightly wound before it completely betrays itself and gives over to something that, at the time must have seemed more... marketable? Intense? Unconventional?
The scariest sequences in Hereditary are entirely focal on Alex Wolff's Peter, which largely rests on a completely disaffected performance that sits removed from the high-wire emotional stuff Collette has going on; but narratively and also aesthetically most of the horror of the first half of the film is derivative of Peter's removal from his family. Two parents share the frame frequently; as do mother/daughter and father/son, but Peter is only seen sharing the screen with his mother in moments if heightened reality, grounded unreality and/or direct supernatural incidence. At its core, this truly does have a non-horror conceit: it's about a mother and a son trying to reconcile some very deep-rooted differences, and the horror is derivative of the tangible physical distance in their relationship.
Here's the issue; Aster presents the first half of this film as Annie's, as something grounded and held together by Collette. The issue being, then, that the second half of the film undermines our empathy with her by shifting the focus to her son; allowing her son to blame her; allowing her to blame herself; recalling the opening images of miniature interiors; reminding us that the text itself blames her; and then continuing to muddle its own imagery by pushing flames into a scene involving mother/father as opposed to mother/son or mother/book. I have absolutely no idea what Aster was going for here or why the symbols change; and even if the shift in focus of the fire imagery made sense I am retroactively gutted about the first half of the movie being deflated by the fact the text itself instills a perspective it openly attempts to avoid.
And still, there's something fascinating, an intense draw to this movie: it is this disorientation, the lack of a foothold on either aesthetic or ideological purpose that makes the movie work. Yes, early sequences (or, I guess, even the whole movie) play like a contemporary fable about the dangers of underage drinking and/or weed-smoking, yes, the film becomes an example of the very thing it tries to discuss, yes, the portrayal of mental illness spins out of control and, entirely unintentionally, the mentally ill are blamed for the faults of their children (yes, by the movie itself), but it is this utter disorientation, Aster's total lack of control over the spiraling affectations of his text that ultimately holds the movie together. The pacing is all wrong and it's easy to lose interest by the end, but there are so many conflicts of ideas and aesthetics that this becomes a hard movie to ignore, and appears set to remain a major entry into the modern horror canon for a long time.
What truly cements its position among the modern horror pantheon is the spread of truly sublime images hidden between the mundane ones: the closing scene includes one of the truly great contemporary horror images; involving a head, a wooden body and a pointing figure. It continues to blur and confuse what the movie is trying to say, but for a fleeting moment the film seems so focused and confident in its ultimate choice that as a skeptical audience member you question your own reading of the film, and wonder if everyone who loves it really has been right the whole time. And then the movie ends, and you realize you're right. And you're ready to watch it again, and think about all these things, all over again. That's more than we can say for most average genre entries.
So, the film's modus operandi rings true for us as an audience too: punishment brings wisdom.