Hereditary ★★★★½

Like the best horror films, Hereditary rarely relies on cheap jump scares, but rather plumbs the depths of real human terror: grief, madness, failure, the loss of control. It's a deeply unsettling film to watch, with some imagery so gruesome I'll never get it out of my mind. But the scenes that are the most unsettling aren't even the graphically violent ones. They're the aftermath.

Consider the shocking turn the film makes at the end of the first act. It's unlike anything you'll expect. But the real horror of it isn't the act itself, which we experience through quick cuts, it's the way it changes those who have to live with it. The slow single take of Peter (Alex Wolff) lying in bed with the knowledge of what is about to be revealed, and the bloodcurdling scream that comes from offscreen when it is, are haunting. Toni Collette—what more does she have to do for an Oscar, goddammit?—screaming on the floor "I need to die" out of sheer, unbearable grief is one of the most visceral scenes I've ever seen.

The film effectively explores the destructive nature of mental illness and intergenerational trauma within a horror setting, never feeling too heavy-handed with the metaphor but delivering it wrapped in a Rosemary's Baby-esque conspiracy. Its nihilistic tone might turn off those viewers who long for a final girl. Similar in tone and pacing to the great The VVitch, Hereditary dooms its characters to their family curse. Except in the case of Hereditary they're cursed not by their own actions but by fate itself. Does that make it sadder? The film at one point explicitly asks the viewer to consider that question, forcing the viewer to reckon with the ways trauma and abuse can render someone's life out of their own control.

It's beautifully directed, acted, shot and sound designed. The film opens with an obituary for Annie's difficult mother, and then slowly zooms in on a dollhouse-like structure that eventually becomes a "real life" scene. Annie (Collette) is an artist who builds miniatures that effectively work through her own traumas. These renderings afford her a sense of control, but it's clear through the way first time director Ari Aster and DP Pawel Pogorzelski shoot these scenes that the memories in these miniatures actually hold the power over Annie. Though she towers over the small scale models, she is often shot in a way that where she is dwarfed by her own home and the oppressive memories it holds. Control is an illusion.

Much could be said of the ways Annie and her family repress their feelings, and refuse to discuss the ways they are in pain at the ways they have been hurt by each other. But the film doesn't offer this in the way of cautionary tale. Domestic drama comes from domestic trauma, and speaking one's true feelings can hasten the destruction of relationships. Honesty is the most brutal policy. But secrets kill. There's no way out. Your sacrifice will be rewarded in the end.

And I thought Annihilation was tough.

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