by Michael Brueggeman and Brooke Warra
People are talking about Hereditary and with good reason. The film is incredibly well-made, the acting is practically flawless, and the cinematography is impeccable with subtle and effective special effects.
Hereditary has three acts and almost functions as three separate films, with the idea of loss and grief acting as the thread that links the three acts together. The first act is a mournful drama of grief and loss. The second act begins with a gut-punch and the jarring moment changes the atmosphere of the film into that of a ghost story, with the film getting even darker and unsettling as grief begins to unhinge the family. The third act is a strange occult conclusion.
Annie Graham, played by Toni Collette, is a miniature/diorama artist dealing with her mixed feelings following the death of her mother. Her performance is masterful. Annie’s struggle with her work, her family life, and her grief continually create imbalances. One moment, life is distracting her from her work, the next work is distracting her from her life, and she begins keeping secrets from her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), including attending a grief-support group without his knowledge.
Secrecy and lies begin the unraveling of the already tenuous bonds between family members. Annie keeps her support group participation hidden, as well as the strange memories of her mother which have been haunting her. But Steve is no better, and keeps Annie in the dark about her mother’s corpse being stolen by graverobbers, seemingly to protect her during this stressful time. Charlie (Milly Shapiro), their 13-year-old daughter, conceals a host of strange behaviors and ghostly visions while their son, Peter (Alex Wolff), keeps his pot-smoking underwraps.
The first act is a slow burn without much in the way of actual horror, but with the pacing most modern horror films have regrettably lacked. There’s the grave-robbery, occult paraphernalia is found in the dead grandmother’s belongings, and a significant character is introduced. The supernatural elements during this part of the film revolve around Charlie, who has yet to speak a word on-screen yet. Annie works on her model-building while her husband vies for her attention. Peter mostly avoids his family and gets high in his room, trying his best to be a normal teenager.
The first in a series of tragic mistakes happens when Annie only allows Peter to borrow the family car for a highschool party if he takes his little sister with him. Peter neglects Charlie while trying to win the affections of a teenage girl. Left to her own devices, Charlie eats a piece of cake that, unbeknownst to her, contains nuts and triggers an allergic reaction, sending her into anaphylactic shock. Peter scoops up Charlie in his arms, it’s the first moment of tenderness we’ve seen from anyone in this family up until this point, and rushes her to the car. As Peter speeds her home (or to the hospital, it’s unclear which as the kids are frenzied) Charlie hangs her head out the car window, gasping for air.
What follows is the most emotionally impactful scene of the film.
Charlie is decapitated by a telephone pole when her brother swerves off the road to avoid hitting an animal. Slamming the car to a sudden stop, Peter sits in the driver’s seat, stunned. Alex Wolff delivers one of the most emotional performances of the entire movie in near silence. It’s a moment that’s excruciating in its jarring finality. First the crushing reality of what’s transpired washes over Peter’s face. Avoiding the view in the rearview mirror, Peter begins to ask his sister if she’s okay, but the words don’t quite make it past his lips. He then drives home with a headless Charlie in the backseat, parks the car in the driveway, and shuffles to bed to wait for morning, when he—and everyone else—will have to face the tragedy of what he’s done.
When morning comes, Annie’s anguish is tangible. The wails of this mother who’s just discovered the gruesome remains of her only daughter will haunt viewers for a lifetime. The short few minutes that conclude the first act are some of the most emotionally powerful moments that have graced (or possibly cursed) a screen in decades.
The death of Charlie is sudden. The audience has just met her, and the development of her character seems cut short. This is purposeful. A life lost too soon. Charlie is ripped away from the story she’s only just begun. We’re left shaken and traumatized, but the show must go on.
The second act brings the supernatural into play when a series of mysteries are unearthed. Annie is taught a method for conducting a seance, and forces both Steve and Peter to help her in a desperate attempt to contact Charlie. But following the seance things quickly become frenzied, and take on paranoid pace.There are ghosts, strange happenings, disturbing dreams, and demonology. Somehow all these elements blend seamlessly. This is where the film proves itself to be high art. Every scene is flawless and manages to conserve its runtime, while still maintaining subtlety and ramping up the tension without it feeling forced. Annie’s character becomes an unreliable narrator, as her past with night terrors and sleepwalking is revealed. This act ends with a twist that manages to be both effective and believable, despite coming out of left field.
The third and final act takes an even sharper turn, but still manages to work with the rest of the film. It becomes apparent that this ending, and it’s climax, is where we’ve been headed all along. Reminiscent of The Wicker Man or Rosemary’s Baby, the conclusion is a bit of a relief given the first two acts. You can’t help but feel guilty taking comfort in something so horrific.
The supernatural, occult, and conspiratorial elements of Hereditary takes a backseat to its real horror: tragedy. The family self-destructs in ways that act as a metaphor for the ways in which people break down following such unbelievable loss. Hereditary is an example of how tragedy itself can be horror.