This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
tylerkellr’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Full notice: this review is 2,000 words long, if you don't want to read that much, the tl;dr is basically that it sucks. Please don't pay money to support Hereditary.
The worst of 2018 so far: I should have known better than to place my trust in an A24 release for which David Ehrlich had been leading the hype train. There are a lonely two things in this movie that I like, so let's start with those.
The first is Gabriel Byrne's performance - Byrne manages to be the only actor who turns in a performance resembling an actual human being. Alex Wolff has two states of being: staring blankly and full sobbing hysteria, Toni Collette exaggerates everything to an uncomfortably dissociative degree, and I swear Milly Shapiro's directing instruction was "just stand there and cluck your tongue." But Gabriel Byrne's character feels sufficiently realistic to the point where I could see him in a more competent film.
The second is the character/death of Charlie. Despite a bizzaro performance and murky character, I thought Charlie was the most compelling character in the first thirty minutes. She's strange, secluded, and ACTUALLY KINDA CREEPY (as opposed with literally anything else in Hereditary). I could actually foresee some really disturbing things happening with this unnatural character - there were allusions to mental illness in the family: what kind of psychotic terror was this girl going to turn out to be? And then, thirty minutes in, she's decapitated by a telephone pole - this is the best and worst moment of the movie. It's one of the two moments that pulled an audible gasp from myself and the audience (the second being the shot of her ant-ridden head a couple minutes later), but it's also the part where the movie loses its most compelling character and its primary marketing foundation. In a way, A24 fucks up with Hereditary the same way they fucked up with It Comes At Night. The promise of a creepy child is a much like the promise of, y'know, SOMETHING THAT COMES AT NIGHT. When you market your movie with the main focus of your trailer being this creepy-ass girl clucking her tongue, your audience is going to expect some little kid creepiness, much like audiences walked into It Comes At Night expecting a creature feature. The important difference between the two, however, is that It Comes At Night kept audiences hoping the entire time, holding their attention up to the bitter end and then spitting on their expectations, but Hereditary tips its hand much earlier, and by the time the end finally rolls around an hour and a half later, no one cares anymore.
Marketing aside, I don't even believe Hereditary functions in whatever way it really wanted to. It doesn't work as occult horror, nor familial horror, nor psychological horror, not even "OHMYGOD NAKED PEOPLE!" horror. Ari Aster spreads himself way too thin, trying to tap into this trope and that, simultaneously failing to actually fit anything scary or disturbing into the story. Hereditary is just too baffling to hold the viewer's attention, let alone inspire terror in them. When the movie itself doesn't understand whether it's playing off of ideas of family or satanism to scare the audience, the audience isn't going to know either what they should be scared of. Ideas are planted that serious mental illness runs in this family, and the title of the film implies this as well. But the "grand reveal" ("whoa, I never saw THAT coming!") at the ending tries to imply that everything was actually satanism all along (or not?? - We'll come back to that). But if that's the case, why was mental illness introduced to the narrative in the first place? Let's break this down scare by scare; don't worry, there aren't many of them, this won't take too long:
- Creepy shadow person standing in the corner of the room near the beginning - this is the most hack fraud moment of Hereditary. What is Ari Aster trying to do with this? I guess it might function as possible establishment of schizophrenia? But I had to quadruple qualify that, so probably not.
- The beheading and subsequent rotting head. This is actually scary. This is the only moment in the movie with clear, no-confusion, real world consequences. Her brother fucking beheads her. Creepy stuff. Who's gonna drive home with their brother after that?
- (one hour later) There's a seance and stuff moves around. This is the first introduction of supernatural elements after basically two thirds of the movie. Might be scary if people still cared by that point, but everyone had already started yawning or just straight-up left.
- Another seance. Alex Wolff exhibits that quality sobbing hysteria. Lots of fun to watch.
- At a couple points in there, there's that tongue clicking noise and at one point Peter (Alex Wolff's character) sees Charlie's apparition, and gets strangled by another apparition?/his mom?/it was just a dream? I don't know. I was too busy trying to figure out what was happening to be scared.
- Joan has some occult setup stuff going to kill Peter or something. We're shown this from an objective perspective, so either Joan is psychotic too (which, I guess it would make sense for psychotic grandma to hang out with other psychos?) or satanism is real in the movie?
- Gabriel Byrne burns to death? Or it was a hallucination? Or..? And he burns up, because... The book burns? But the book was supposed to burn up Toni Collette's character... You see why there's too much confusion to be scared right? If I, as a viewer, can't understand whether Byrne is really dead - and if so, why he's actually dead - then there's no room for fear to take hold.
- NAKED SMILING PEOPLE AHHHHHHHHH. Jesus Christ, this movie...
- He's a demon!! OH MY GOD asdfghjklwjvnei (more on this ending in just a sec.)
And that's about it. There's another rotting corpse in there and flies and maybe a couple irrelevant "scares" thrown in to keep the audiences attention, but the running theme here is that none of these "scary" things make enough sense to actually scare the audience. Ari Aster needed to pick a goddamn side in Hereditary to actually frighten people.
The saddest thing in all this, is that the ending shot alone could have salvaged a lot of this. Hereditary does not work on first viewing. This is something no one will dissuade me from - I actually swear there's some inside joke/conspiracy that I don't know about to boost the ratings on this thing. But if the ending shot had just been anything else besides Alex Wolff just staring fucking blankly at the screen, I could have thrown some mild amount of support behind this, or at least would have felt motivated to watch again. The way I see it, there were too acceptable endings to Hereditary (neither of which were the final cut): 1., Peter is crowned, and after staring blankly through it all, he opens his mouth and just screams in terror - he's the sane man, the grounding element, caught up in the insanity of his family's psychotic cult, or 2., he smiles creepily or does something otherwise demonic to confirm that he indeed has become Peiman; maybe have that blue glow thingy in his eyes or something. In the second eventuality however, I still maintain that the constant allusions to DID, schizophrenia, and sleepwalking had absolutely no business in the narrative. Mental illness just sheds doubt and confusion over anything occult.
Going back to the acting - none of the performances help this confusion. Toni Collette and Alex Wolff are a such an inexplicable frustration throughout. Alex Wolff sucks. I can only assume there's a reason Jumanji only let him show up on-screen for five minutes, and his performance in Hereditary is exponentially worse. Someone staring blankly has never pissed me off so much as it does here.
Toni Collette is hardly any better. If I had to describe Collette's performance to someone who hadn't seen the movie before, I'd say she's somewhere between the crazy mom from Stranger Things and a poor emulation of a Yorgos Lanthimos character. Everything she does or says seems at once overreactive but also strangely dissociated. I feel like maybe her character was supposed to inspire discomfort or uneasiness, but it just becomes frustrating to watch. Contrast this with an actual Yorgos Lanthimos character, and Hereditary's shortcomings become so much more clear. Where Barry Kheoghan's unnerving, sociopathic detachment in the fantastic Killing Of A Sacred Deer added to the slow-burn terror and real-world discomfort, Alex Wolff's detachment just makes his own character seem uninteresting in what's happening around him. And while Nicole Kidman's excessive, forced politeness veils a frightening, dangerous character underneath, Collette's constant mood swings and plastic line delivery is just alienating.
I'd like to focus on some of the dialogue itself for a moment. Slow burn horror doesn't have to mean a slow movie. The VVitch is a fantastic slow burn horror film, but it isn't a slow or boring movie to watch. Things happen, the plot progresses, it's only an hour and a half - much of this can probably be attributed to one extent or another to the fact that the dialogue WAS ACTUALLY PARED DOWN IN THE FINAL DRAFT. Hereditary is possibly the least economical movie I've ever watched in terms of line editing. Collette's character runs into Joan in a parking lot and Joan starts telling her about a seance she went AND TALKS ABOUT THIS FOR THREE MINUTES. I shit you not. This scene could literally consist of [Joan: "I went to a medium", Smash cut to: -outside Joan's apartment-] End scene. Everything that was communicated in three minutes has now been communicated in ten seconds. Tyler Keller, draft editor extraordinaire, at your service. Or there's the scene at the dinner table, in which Collette manically laments "All of this is because no one will admit what they've done!" (referencing to a conversation earlier where Collette admitted to dousing herself and her children in paint thinner, and holding a match "while sleepwalking"), and rather than letting this irony and self-reflective guilt sit with the audience, PETER DIRECTLY SPELLS IT OUT FOR THE AUDIENCE. Just end the goddamn scene with that line, maybe give a couple seconds of awkward silence, and it's so much more powerful.
Pawel Pogorzelski deserves some moderate amount of praise for some of the clever doll-house cinematography, but his preoccupation with fitting a long take into every scene seems more obsessive than artistic. I think audiences pick up on editing and pacing more than most filmmakers give them credit, and if every scene has a long, slow-panning shot, then this kind of camerawork won't clinch the audience's attention at the end the way it otherwise would. Even the diorama aesthetic didn't feel as well done in here as in Game Night - which is rather sad given that Game Night was a studio comedy. I think a major reason why Game Night's gameboard aesthetic was more compelling to me was that it directly tied into the themes and events of the movie itself, whereas Collette's diorama hobby/job is shoehorned in with no connection to the theme or narrative of Hereditary.
Hereditary has also convinced me of a central flaw in the current lineup of syndicated film reviewers' discernment. Horror movies with "family issues" are practically assured of critical praise, regardless of the actual quality and depth of these family relationships. Hereditary undercuts literally any idea of inheritable family demons with the introduction of its satanic cult, but because there's a family and they argue about stuff, in the eyes of the syndicated critic, it must be a meaningful and insightful relationship. It's not even just Hereditary that got universal praise because of "family". Lights Out a couple years ago, by all means a horrendous movie, got largely positive reviews, due mainly to the ideas of "family". A Quiet Place, a fun but thoroughly flawed film, got unflinching praise from syndicated critics. It's an obnoxious trend that I've become entirely frustrated with.
I think that's mostly everything I have to say about Hereditary. A couple random things. There's a shot of the family dog dead near the end and it's the most inexplicably random thing. It gave off a strong "Oh, we forgot about the dog. Just throw in a shot of him dead or something" energy, and I'll admit to giggling at it in the theatre. In fact, the entire theatre was in a state of "We're so done with this shit" giggles during the last five minutes, and while I'm usually opposed to that kind of theatre conduct, I fully believe Hereditary deserved it - and that's about the most heartfelt dis-endorsement I can give this fly-ridden corpse of a plastic diorama.