By Mark Laherty
So, here’s a horror movie – and it’s difficult to be more specific than that. In retrospect, the trailer for this thing avoided giving away the premise and even led the audience to believe that it was a different story. Here’s a movie so intent on concealing its twist that its marketing campaign halfway lied to you.
Let’s say what we can. This is a movie about a family from the US south grieving after the recent death of the grandmother. The lines of communication between everyone are fraying and breaking down. The mother’s job is delicately crafting miniature buildings, a device which allows for a lot of exposition without anyone talking about the past too much. And then some horror movie things start to occur around the 13-year-old daughter with bad hair. But, if you’re about to mark this off as an Exorcist clone, then don’t.
The misdirection isn’t limited to the trailer. The movie itself puts a lot of effort into misleading you as to what kind of movie this is. Well, to an extent; it is always clear that this is Premium Spook Time. But, of course, there are various sub-genres of spook: creepy kid movies, unreliable narrator movies, haunted house movies, and so forth.
The early segments of this movie oscillate between the various genres a lot, determined to keep you on your toes. Even once the plot of the movie locks in properly, the explanation is hard to see coming. It might be a little too hard. The movie does some work to lay the ground rules for what is to come but it does feel like a different movie by the end. If you’re used to the Western canon of storytelling and haven’t really dipped a toe outside of that (no shame), then some of this might feel like blatant screenplay cheating. But, there’s a thematic underpinning to everything that makes it work.
Compare this to, say, Steven Moffat’s work on Sherlock. That show was hugely popular amongst my age group for a few years. Then, it became increasingly apparent that its various plot twists and cliff-hanger endings weren’t leading to any satisfying conclusion. Hereditary doesn’t have this kind of plotting illness because every twist has a reason to exist. The internal logic of the story, both in-universe and thematically, clicks together like locks in a tumbler. There’s never any sense that the screenwriters wrote something that just doesn’t make sense so that you’ll never see it coming.
Instead, it’s about subverting expectations. When you go to see any genre movie, you quickly spot the set-ups if you’re familiar with the tropes from other movies or even pop-cultural osmosis. So, you think to yourself, ‘Okay, that means this and this and this are going to happen,’ even subconsciously. Hereditary makes use of that couching to throw you for a loop. As you’re watching the early and even the middle section, the movie will look at you and (not literally) say ‘Oh, so you think you know where this is going because you’ve seen a creepy kid movie before, or an unreliable narrator movie before, or a haunted house movie before.’
One of the major strengths of this movie, and another factor that lets it get away with its twisty-turny plot, is that it is about larger, more philosophical fears and problems. The real heart of this movie, the problem that drives the plot and its ideas, leave a more lasting impact than any jump-scare or gore.
In a less noticeable way, the movie benefits from what it decides not to do as well. There are a few tropes common to horror movies that have bad connotations, like poor representation of mental illness and the depiction of femininity and motherhood as other or wrong in some way. The movie pokes those tropes of femininity with a stick at the start. But, it only does so to subvert them later. The mental illness tropes allow for an element of ambiguity which adds to the movie as far it goes, but doesn’t go far enough to be a genuine problem.
The performances are outstanding all around. One of the main reasons this movie works is because, more so than some horror movies, it makes you care about the characters who are being given a bad time. That wouldn’t have happened without good performances so kudos to them all. Toni Collette does a great job with a mother who becomes less sympathetic as you find out more about her; this is unusual as Hollywood often treats emotional transparency as a virtue unto itself.
Gabriel Byrne does well in what must have been a difficult straight-man role. Usually, I find myself being polite about child actors but Milly Shapiro genuinely does a great job with the ‘creepy kid’ role. It’s something that could have felt like an old trope stuck in the microwave (and is, to be fair, riffing on genre expectations) but she makes it feel fresh. Alex Wolff (Paper Towns) has established himself as a charismatic actor by now. Even so, his turn here as the teenage son is surprisingly excellent. There are a couple of scenes where the camera just stays on his face and lets him sell it. Both of those scenes are among the best in the movie, which says a lot.
A lot of people are putting out rave reviews of this movie. A few cranks have more negative takes, describing it as style over substance, but the style is tied to and exists to communicate the substance so that doesn’t make sense.
In honesty, I was tense throughout this movie but never screamed out loud. I flinched several times but I wasn’t struck with an unease that stayed with me.
But, that’s the response that a lot of other people had to this movie. And I think the difference comes down to how much experience you’ve had with this kind of grief and how affected you are by the deeper ideas in play here.
Put it this way. Hereditary is a good horror movie. A Quiet Place is a good horror movie. But, as good as A Quiet Place is, it’s not the sort of story where I feel like I should recommend that someone pencil in something happy or relaxing afterwards.
In summary: go see Hereditary and then get a 99 or something.