Ari Aster’s Hereditary may open with a newspaper excerpt from an obituary, but that’s not what many people will first remember. Honestly, some may hardly recall the film’s first shot after witnessing two hours of the cinematic equivalent to blunt force trauma, but it’s worth breaking down what it, and a fair majority of Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography, in general, means thematically for every stifled breath and irregular heart palpitation to come. Beginning by peering through a window towards a tree house in the center of the frame, the camera then slowly pans around a lived-in, abandoned studio room to focus on a dollhouse. Zooming in on an upstairs bedroom in said diorama, we silently transition from model size to full scale, as Steve Graham (Gabriel Byrne) awakens son Peter (Alex Wolff) by throwing him his funeral suit.
Whenever we reside with the Grahams in their secluded Utah home, most of the interior shots exude a similar feeling of flatness; of looking through the open spaces of a dollhouse. Still, or otherwise evenly moving medium long shots with a high depth of field that makes every aspect of the mise-en-scène feel compressed. And with the opening shot’s dollhouse contextualizing how we perceive the lens’s perspective, each character is harshly reduced to the lifeless, manipulated figures occupying each model. They exhibit no and are not capable of agency and, given this thought sticking in the back of our minds, the same applies to us.
There’s always an implied, not just physical, distance between viewer and performer that hinders an audience’s ability to help struggling characters beyond futile mental encouragement, but throughout his feature debut, Aster’s visual approach constantly reminds us of our and his protagonists’ helplessness. We are stuck with them in crushing misery justifying every sentiment toward nihilistic insignificance – not to mention the particular perspective is normally one in which we are the ones establishing control. On paper, that might sound unnecessarily mean-spirited, but after letting 127 minutes of rich, dread-riddled horror the likes of which few studios outside of A24 have released in recent memory sink into every subsequently fried nerve, it’s hardly cruel and unusual punishment.
Not everyone who will see Hereditary will have yet experienced the loss of a loved one, but it’s something to which we all inevitably relate – not just mortality in and of itself, but also the bitter, lonely realization that we are incapable of stopping it. Of course, one need not have gone through a period of mourning to either identify with or empathize with these characters’ great anguish, and the entertainment value doesn’t hinge upon one’s relative experience with it, though it doesn’t hurt, for lack of a better, more appropriate phrase, to have such experience informing a more personal connection with Hereditary’s unfortunate victims of circumstance. Arguably, it additionally makes the film’s dense tension that much more unbearable.
Hereditary is about powerless people haplessly trying to summon strength, humanity and control in the face of various trials and tribulations, psychologically overlooking that control is beyond them, and it is also perhaps the best metaphorical work since Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook for unchecked trauma manifesting into a quietly all-consuming evil latching onto the vulnerability characters wish to deny. Just like processing the death of someone close takes time, so does Aster, crafting a simplified story that, despite its considerable length, patiently allows unfolding events, increasingly manic performances – particularly from a sympathetic, yet infrequently intimidating Toni Collette – and its visual approach to steadily build an immersive atmosphere that sucks out whatever vitality you felt strolling into the auditorium.
Evoking the character and theme-driven works of New Hollywood like Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining, yet completely in tune with modern examples like The Witch and It Comes at Night in terms of present-day genre fare balancing homage and ferocity, the film doesn’t hit you straight away. Even after its first genuinely shocking incident, it continues steadfastly along a narrative pattern favoring moments of steep, yet sometimes subtle thematic punctuation interspersed throughout dead-eyed passages in unpredictable fashion. Sitting before it for two hours, you almost lose a sense of where you are temporally in the plot, particularly through the second act lost in an endless maze of agony, but the exponentially heightening degree of said punctuations always seem to rein us back in toward a sense of progression.
That progression, however, is far scarier than any one visual or set piece the final act has to offer, not to say that stage in the story isn’t damn effective to the last minute. It isn’t just not knowing where the story will end and how its atmosphere will climax, but also comes from how stuck we feel, subjected to its unnerving trajectory. In every sense of the phrase, it genuinely feels like we hit an unsettling point of no return, and whatever nightmares remain are ours to reluctantly grasp. It’s not the sort of horror that’ll have you scream or jump in fright the way night-vision promos of other genre features love to boast about; rather, it’s the kind of horror that induces suffocating emotional paralysis. You are – say it with me – helpless.
Some will call its final few sequences relief from exhaustion, and others will – and have – call it the sort of resonant fear that’ll linger for longer than you’ll care to allow. But, such is the nature of bereavement. It is emotionally and existentially exhausting, but it must be worked through – properly, as Aster shows in what plays like a symptomatic cautionary tale for letting the shadow of death overcome your ability to persevere. There’s no one way to move on from the death of a loved one, but there are a few wrong ways to do it, portrayed in the form of each protagonist. Thankfully, though, once you leave the theater, you aren’t as hopeless as they.