Starring: Toni Collette, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne, and Alex Wolff
I have fallen for an ad campaign.
That might not sound like a necessarily negative statement. After all, people fall for them thousands of times daily, given that's the entire point of their existence. Companies are always trying to push their brands out there using catchy monikers and hyperbolic statements, using whatever they can to get a leg up on the competition. It's just a fact of life. Advertisements are everywhere, and I must say that I have grown quite accustomed to completely ignoring them. But everyone is a victim at some point.
I first heard about Hereditary back in January. It was actually a friend who mentioned it to me, having read on some horror news site about a film out of the Sundance Film Festival that was garnering praise and reputation as the scariest film of the year. That's a pretty hefty statement for any horror film released in a given year, but an even more impressive feat when the month it's released happens to be the first month of the whole goddamned year. Immediately, my interest was piqued. A trailer was released a short time later, and that solidified things—I had to see this in a theater.
Let me be clear about the weight of that statement: I don't see movies in a theater. Like, almost ever. I find it to be a huge waste of money. Yes, please let me pay $30 for a popcorn and soda, the two cheapest things to make on any menu and probably a 1000% markup, after having just dropped $20 for two pieces of paper. Hmm, I'm very baffled as to how piracy is a widespread problem.
Hereditary starts off brilliantly, with an opening shot that slowly tracks around a room before settling on a dollhouse. The camera pans into it closely, and we realize it's a smaller version of a bedroom, complete with a doll lying in the bed. Then, the door opens and a character walks in, It's a brilliant, seamless transition from static miniature shot to live-action film, and just one in a myriad of examples of technological prowess featured within. But technical prowess does not a movie make, and Hereditary crumbles under the weight of its own convoluted story.
It wastes no time setting up what we believe will be the outer shell of the story: Annie (Toni Collette, in a performance for which there are no words) and the rest of her family are mourning the loss of her mother, who recently passed away. Well, “mourning” might be a strong word, as most of the family members don't really seem to mind that she is gone. We eventually learn that she was a bitter old woman even when she was fine, but was made even more unbearable as she slowly started giving in to the effects of dementia, and this became increasingly difficult to bear for all the remaining members of the family.
The old woman fell out of touch with almost everyone in the family, but she always held an unhealthy fascination with Charlie, Annie's introverted thirteen-year-old daughter. Charlie is a simple little girl, who likes to “cluck” her tongue against the roof of her mouth, and who has a weakness for sweets (predominantly chocolate bars; however, she has a severe allergy to nuts). But her simplicity and innocence belies a morbid fascination with death. For example, after a bird commits accidental suicide after flying into her class window, she calmly grabs a pair of scissors, and goes outside to decapitate the already-dead animal. She also passes her time drawing creepy portraits of family members. Has she always had this predilection for disturbing pictures, or is she perhaps being...helped...by her dead grandmother?
From here, I will honor the “Critic's Code” (a moniker I just made up because I'm far from a respectable reviewer of movies) and resist the strong urge I have to spill some plot beans. Why? Because, supposedly, this is one of those films that work better the less you know about its plot; a notion I call bullshit to, because all I did was watch the trailer and I was still incredibly disappointed. I want to describe it in detail not to prepare you for what you're going to see, but to warn you about what you're going to see. And not because it's so shocking, but because it's so maddeningly stupid. (Though I must admit an early twist is perfectly shocking, and falsely lulls you into a sense that the film is heading down the right track.)
I guess I can kind of see the acclaim, because what Hereditary does right, it does almost perfectly: It's a technical masterpiece, with outstanding shots and visual trickery galore. I am rather surprised to see that Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover--amongst one of my favorite films of all time--also had a profound effect on writer/director Ari Aster, and while I cannot say that I would have picked up on that just from watching Hereditary, you can clearly see that, like Greenaway, he does have an artist's aptitude for creating striking visual compositions.
Then there's Toni Collette, who, quite frankly, gives one of the greatest horror performances of all time. I don't really pay attention to acting all that often, because it's generally the least interesting part of a movie for me. But she, as Annie, is required to run the gamut of emotions from endless despair, to pent-up rage, and does so with such a burning intensity and commitment to the role that's refreshing for a genre typically relegated to screaming women and one-note characters. No matter what you think of the film, there is no denying that she is the main reason any of it even remotely works whatsoever; the other actors seem to feed off her performance, and while no one can even come close to matching her, they all turn in solid renditions. I'm tempted to make some reference about how Collette not being nominated for some sort of major Hollywood award would be a travesty, but the whole Hollywood system is a travesty, a smoke and mirrors campaign that bases its awards on algorithms and politics, rather than those actually deserving to win. By this metric, it might actually mean more if she doesn't.
At the end of the day, though, Hereditary is an arthouse movie being forced into mainstream theaters. It's the kind of movie that critics get hard-ons over, while bemoaning the “average moviegoers” who are “idiots” and “don't get it” because it's a “cinematic masterpiece”. I understand that mentality, because I have to admit that normally I would be on their side: I do think a large portion of the theater-going public are idiots. They are the reason that people like Adam Sandler are considered funny beyond third grade, and the reason there are three Taken movies. They soak up bland drivel and predictable films without a second thought, encouraging studios to recycle ideas and forcefeeding audiences with docile, unchallenging pictures that merely regurgitate the same tired, familiar formulas ad nauseum, to inexplicably packed houses.
But you know what? Sometimes it's not the audience members that are morons; sometimes, it's the studios, who purposefully market films they themselves don't understand in completely misleading ways. The idea is obviously to create a building snowball worth of hype, and by the time the film is released and the audience realizes that what they're seeing is nothing at all like what they were promised, the studio already has their money. The reviews all point to how terrifying and gripping it is, but no one has mentioned how half the audience erupted in laughter as the final credits started rolling during the opening night screening I attended. And no, it wasn't the nervous laughter of a group of people who had just survived the world's scariest movie and weren't sure how to process their emotions. It was the laughter of a group of people who figured out, much too late, that they had been duped.
In some business circles, this would be known as a “bait-and-switch” tactic, but in Hollywood, it's known as “business as usual” (just like rape and pedophilia). And, just like the idiots they were targeting, I fell hook, line, and sinker.