My favorite part of Hereditary was the last 20 minutes and it’s ruining all of my friendships. The consensus amongst my friends is that the grueling first two-thirds of the film are so grounded in reality by Ari Aster’s steady direction and Toni Colette’s stunning performance that the self-decapitating, fifty shades of naked, demon-tastic finale seems cheap, like a massive CGI explosion. I think this argument is spectacularly missing the point of the whole film (and if you think that sounds a little condescending, you now understand why my social life is in jeopardy).
At the opening of Hereditary, we see Annie (Colette) delivering what can only be described as a restrained eulogy for her mother. It is immediately clear that this was not an ideal mother-daughter relationship. As the movie progresses, we become painfully aware of just how non-ideal every relationship in this family is. Annie’s son, Peter (a holy-shit-who-the-fuck-is-that-kid level performance by Alex Wolff), spends most of his time plotting ways to get out of evenings at home, her daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) exhibits all the traits of a budding serial-killer and her husband, Steve, played by Gabriel Byrne, is so absent that I briefly forgot Byrne was even in this movie…while I was watching the movie.
This is the real American family. A mix of insecurities, anxieties and regrets so potent that their family dinner conversations contain more horror than any of the film’s later supernatural elements. And then everything is amped up to 11 by the sudden death of young Charlie, a death that will forever sit in the pantheon of shocking horror kills (right up there with Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea, guys. Remember that one? Such a magical moment trapped in a terrible film…sigh).
Aster wisely plays this straight. He avoids gimmicky camera tricks and ominous music in favor of simply chronicling what is certainly the most horrific thing a family can experience. He lulls the audience into a false sense of security that this might be the type of horror film that stays in the real world, that the strange occurrences that ensue might just be in Annie’s grief-stricken head. He leans into the psychosis theory even further with a scene in which Annie explains her mother’s mental illness in detail at a group therapy session. I actually heard audience members at my screening whispering to each other “Oh, she’s totally schizo”.
The brilliance of Colette really shines here, no one can make a breakdown that belongs in a Greek Tragedy seem totally believable quite like her. When you need a gothy weirdo, you call Helena Bonham Carter, when you need a clumsy chatterbox, you call Anne Hathaway, and when you need someone to completely lose their shit without veering into Jessie-Spano-on-caffeine-pills territory, you call Toni. Her performance is what ultimately fools us so well that even as Peter begins to see the supernatural, we still hope that it is all inherited delusion and not a very real curse placed upon the family. It’s not until Steve spontaneously combusts and all Hell breaks loose that the audience finally has to succumb to what is really going on - there is a curse, there are demons, and no one is getting out of this alive.
And here is where my friends get it all wrong: they mourn the red herring. Why can’t it be about the real world terror of inherited mental illness, they ask, why is there a fucking Ouija board in this movie (that one I kind of agree with), why must it take a hard left into cults and demons and Annie chasing Peter into the attic in defiance of all reason and gravity, sawing off her own head, and levitating into a tree-house full of the naked cast of Cocoon? And the answer is simple: the film is about the real terror and not about the real world.
Horror movies are not about how something is in the real world, they are about how something feels inside our own minds. They capture our internal fears and materialize them with ghosts and demons and Babadooks that chase us down and force us to face them. And what better materialization of the fear of heredity than a murderous satanic priestess mother? By descending into demonic mayhem, Hereditary ceases to be a drama about one family’s struggle and becomes a metaphor for a terror we all face: that we are destined to become our parents.
As much as you might love your family, realizing you get alcoholism, a few shitty personality traits, or even just a penchant for terrible puns from them can sometimes feel like a monster chasing you up the stairs and there’s nothing you can do. We may hope in the real world there are ways around heredity, but we fear there are not. It can feel inevitable and grotesque, and that finale, that psychotic, beautiful, scary finale captures this. Those last 20 minutes of supernatural terror are what thrust the film into greatness. And it follows through to the bitter end, leaving poor Peter replaced by the demon his ancestors ordained him to be, and the audience obligated to watch their fears about their own destiny realized. It’s fucking perfect.
You may have a counterargument here, but I can assure you, I’m not backing down on this. I am extremely stubborn…I get that from my Mom.