Director: Ari Aster
Writer: Ari Aster
Composer: Colin Stetson
Starring: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro
Genre: Drama, Horror, Mystery
Before 2018’s Sundance Film Festival, Ari Aster was virtually unknown as a director. Afterward, he was touted by critics as having created one of the scariest movies of all time; a masterpiece that rivaled even the heavyweights of the genre, like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. It didn’t take long for that level of hype to spread, along with some apprehension. Those are some big claims right there–can any film really live up to that kind of word of mouth?
Just as intriguing as the director’s sudden rise to fame is the film’s plot. The story’s details remain rather nonspecific, refreshingly going against the current trend of trailers horrendously ruining everything. While it can be incredibly fun to enter a cinema without knowing what rules it’s going to utilize, given its genre, could this be a bad idea for some Christians who may have issues regarding particular content?
This is a difficult review because I wish for you to undertake the same experience as myself–it was a delight to watch this film without much prior knowledge regarding the plot, and to have it surprisingly unfold before my eyes. However, there are some issues regarding the film’s content that I, as a Christian, cannot ignore. I will endeavor to address these without spoiling the movie too much, however, if you wish to enter the cinema knowing only the basics, I will provide warnings in this review as to when I’m about to delve deeper.
Warning: This section does contain light spoilers. Skip down to the review portion if you wish to avoid the finer details of this film.
Violence/Scary Images: This is a horror film, so some images are intended to scare. Multiple characters catch on fire. A burnt corpse is seen. There are multiple beheadings, one of which is seen on camera, and that one is self-inflicted. The detached heads and bodies are shown. A bird’s corpse is mutilated. Bugs are shown feasting on human remains. Humans are possessed and perform supernatural acts that supersede normal limitations. Unnatural apparitions and sounds. Self-inflicted injuries. The film’s level of gore matches that of the acts seen–it is neither excessive or minimalistic. Scientifically unexplainable events occur during a séance.
Language/Crude Humor: The f-bomb and s-word are dropped infrequently, along with “d*ck”, “r*etarded,” and “p*ssy” in lesser amounts. “D*mn” and “h*ll” are also heard, and Jesus’ name is used as an exclamation.
Drug/Alcohol References: There is a party scene where alcohol is drunk socially, though the consumers are underage. Characters are also seen smoking and offering marijuana to each other, for recreational purposes.
Sexual Content: Both men and women are seen completely naked, though they are not depicted in a sexualized manner.
Spiritual Content: Strong depictions of Pagan/Occult worship. A séance is conducted. Possession occurs. The lore this movie references can be linked back to the Lesser Key of Solomon and Ars Goetia. There is no direct reference to the teachings of Christianity–the film is mostly New Age/”Spiritual” in its worldview.
Other Negative Content: The topic of intentional miscarriage is brought up in conversation. Lies are told and there are major instances of deceit.
Positive Content: This film features a brave portrayal of a family trying to cope after experiencing a great tragedy. The mistakes made, both in actions and words, highlight the importance of taking the opposite path.
Hereditary is a work of art. Purveyors of the genre will admire this film’s unique approach to narrative storytelling, camerawork, unusual editing choices, and the fine performances from the cast. With a growing sense of unease similar to that of Rosemary’s Baby, coupled with the emotional weight of The Orphanage, Hereditary elicits a number of emotions from its viewers ranging from terror to utter despair.
Some will be dismayed to learn that Hereditary’s biggest scares don’t come from the shocking imagery or the twisted turn of events, but rather the family drama. For the vast majority of the runtime, the movie doesn’t focus on hunting down a creature or the terrorization of a villain. Instead, it follows a family going through personal tragedy, documenting its slow disintegration. While there are some truly ghastly scenes, the greatest gasp from the audience is elicited by a short statement the mother utters to her estranged son. Such is the mastery of Ari Aster’s script and direction.
The film’s apparent lack of rules is unnerving. It features a seemingly directionless structure. For the longest time, the film refuses to define itself, leaving the audience to simply witness a family processing their grief. There are no older mentors or fellow survivors that pop up during the first act to set the scene, nor is the family’s quest clear. Hereditary’s uneasy mystery resides in the fact that you don’t know what you’re watching. A haunted house flick? Ghosts? Monsters? Demons? Witchcraft? Mental illness? At one stage the film teases three possible outcomes and even the idea that there may not be anything supernatural at all. Yet even when the film begins to resemble a more traditional model of storytelling in this genre, finally satiating the audience’s thirst for exposition, it still manages to turn those expectations on their head.
The end reveal is fitting and oddly satisfying, though, like other horror films, if one were to summarize the plot in two sentences, it would sound lame. Since Hereditary takes so long to narrow its focus and clarify what subgenre it’s using, some audiences may feel like the third act is rather disjointed; it seemingly comes out of nowhere. However Hereditary is a film that demands a second (or third, or even a fourth) viewing. It may take a while to digest this film, but the clues are all there, cleverly layered in amongst the lives of the four main players. It’s a masterful, meticulous script where there are no throwaway lines.
Hereditary resists limiting itself through the standard conventions, deviating from the usual “pattern” these types of stories take– a trait that certainly isn’t confined solely to its narrative structure. It’s also unconventional with its cinematography. Most films stick to a predictable formula; the protagonist will hear a noise, the camera will focus on the other side of the room, but it’s all a diversion because the creature is actually standing right behind the person. Shock, horror, horror! Repeat this five times over and you have The Conjuring universe.
Hereditary doesn’t do this. At all. But it’s expected, and when the movie refuses to obey, the unpredictability is chilling. Instead of quick, claustrophobic jumpy cuts, timed with a musical stinger, Ari Aster dares to do the opposite. Using wide-angle shots, he lingers uncomfortably on the subject in total silence. It’s an uncommon technique that I last saw properly utilized in 2001’s Kairo (Pulse). The result is terrifying, as the full weight of the scene is uncomfortably imposed upon the audience, having no choice but to accept its unwanted intrusion. The mind begs to cut away. It’s not always graphic in its content, but the brain understands that it’s seeing the impossible. Closing your eyes won’t save you–it will still be there when you open them!
Ari Aster also makes some wonderful choices in regards to focus pulling and lighting. Seemingly taking some inspiration from The Exorcist, sometimes the shot will sneakily include something a little sinister. The protagonist, blurry-eyed after a restless sleep or otherwise phased by confusion, struggles to comprehend what exactly they’re seeing… much like the audience. It’s an interesting experience, with the mind constantly debating whether it’s in denial, while the scene’s heavy shadows toy with the audience’s vision. Agonizingly slow pans are also utilized, leaving viewers to burn their gaze right at the edge of the frame, mentally screaming to hurry up and discover what horror awaits.
The director demonstrates that he is more than competent in a wide variety of filmic techniques, though for the movie’s pivotal moment, it’s the editing that has left the critics babbling. The scene in question will no doubt go down in film history, skilfully choosing to delay the audience’s gratification. It echoes the character’s numbed decision, temporarily abstaining from taking responsibility, though the hefty fine of their actions is inevitable. When they are finally ready to face the consequences head-on, the camera cuts back, and it’s horrific. It was a bold move to delay the reveal, whereas lesser films would’ve followed a more chronological order, at the expense of the scene’s symbolic impact.
Of course, none of this could have been achieved with an inexperienced cast. Each role has depth, demanding a lot from each actor. There’s the outcast daughter struggling with the loss of the relative that understood her best, the son that has his life irreparably defined by a single moment, the mother that is forced to confront her past in order to cope with the present, and the father that’s just trying to keep the family together. Four stories to invest in, though debatably it’s the son and mother’s character journeys that are the most compelling. Likewise, there are no weak performances here, though it’s Alex Wolff and Toni Collette who are the standouts.
While some may argue as to who is the real protagonist of Hereditary, or whether it actually shifts around, the emotional driving force of the film is largely in the hands of Toni Collette. Expressing a flurry of numerous psychological states, she delivers the best performance of the year thus far. By a long shot! Don’t be shocked when an Oscar nomination comes her way, despite the fact that horror films aren’t the Academy’s first preference in genre.
These are the reasons why critics adore this film. There have been some great horror films released within the past few months: A Quiet Place, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum, and Ghost Stories, to name a few. All of them are wonderful examples of their respective types, except Hereditary is a once-in-a-decade film that breaks genre and offers something fresh. The mechanics behind this movie are daring and impressive, though for general audiences simply looking for a horror fix, it’s easy to see why there’s such a great disparity between Rotten Tomato scores.
The level of hype and attention this film has received certainly hasn’t helped to manage audience expectations. Some people define a horror film’s greatness by its presence of jump scares. If they were jolted in shock, then the film is deemed scary, no matter how creepy and unsettling the movie’s atmosphere, which is the more difficult feat to accomplish. Others cope with their fear by chatting amongst friends or finding moments to laugh, as a way to diffuse the tension and create an emotional buffer that distances one’s involvement from the events on screen.
Both Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum and Ghost Stories play well to that type of audience, delivering a wicked sense of humor with well-timed sudden scares. Though these common behaviors would absolutely destroy Hereditary’s cinematic experience, as the terror only comes when viewers are brave enough to step into the characters’ shoes and empathize with them.
Horror is also highly subjective. In one scene, the mother is seen wailing in despair. Some viewers will find the shot unintentionally funny, with Toni Collette going a bit over the top with her performance. Yet for those who have had the unfortunate experience of witnessing wailing in real life, possibly from the relatives of the deceased at a tragic funeral, then the scene is painfully heart-wrenching, sending chills down the spine.
The other issue that audiences might face is related to the film’s most unique trait–its sense of mystery. Exposition is slowly leaked, like blobs of paint through a clogged nozzle. Ten minutes can pass with seemingly no new information to show, which makes it only all the more obvious when the story finally does relinquish a few secrets. Toni Collette’s character is normally the one that uncovers the finer details of the plot, and she manages to seemingly mix it in thanks to her stunning performance, despite the narrative’s occasionally clunky delivery. Unfortunately, some audience members hate being proverbially left in the dark for so long, quick to assume they don’t understand what is happening not because of the film’s pacing, but due to a fear they may have missed something. You know who you are, and if you’re the type of person that likes to keep in step with the film as it progresses, then Hereditary may be a torturous ride for you for all the wrong reasons.
Hereditary won’t satisfy everyone’s tastes, though its technical achievements are hard to fault. However, it’s the film’s themes that have me split; I adore this film as a cinematic piece, however as a Christian it raises a few concerns. If you wish to go into this movie fresh, then please scroll to the next bolded section, as in order to discuss further, I will need to reveal more of the plot.
Horror may be the genre to depict evil most often, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the film should be instantly unworthy of further analysis. Like some of the more sordid details in the Old Testament, movies that seek to terrify their audiences can work as morality tales. While the torture porn craze early this century was mostly disturbing and difficult to justify its existence, the horror genre as of late is thankfully facing a Renaissance of sorts, becoming more purposeful with its symbolism and developing stories with integrity.
The Babadook stunned critics by presenting one of the best metaphors for grief ever committed to screen, whilst It Follows found a clever way to show one’s ever-growing sense of mortality that tends to develop with maturity. When it comes to films touching on theology, The Wailing depicted three religions, thoroughly exploring the very nature of evil and humanity’s interaction with it. Whereas The Conjuring universe is more specific, dealing heavily with Satanic topics and occult themes. While some films will depict demonic events, it’s these movies in the horror genre that are also most likely to show spiritual warfare and the power Christ’s death and resurrection have over the forces of evil.
Yet Hereditary is a different breed. The demonology and cult worship that’s infused into the plot originates from lore that seems to be more ancient and foreign to what we’re typically presented. While it’s wonderful from an artistic standpoint to witness a film break free from the standard genre rules, this is at the expense of not having a Christian worldview to balance out the demonic power. Christ (or anything Biblical) is never suggested as a strategy to combat the supernatural happenings, and while other horror films still like to play in the Abrahamic religious realm, Hereditary feels distinctly Pagan or New Age in comparison.
This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem provided the story’s themes justified the fatalistic Satanic nature of the events. However I’ve mulled over this film for a number of days now, and I still struggle in determining exactly what message is being promoted. What’s the underlying moral to the story?
If one really wanted to dig deep, the film does share some theology with a rather obscure Old Testament passage, yet that doesn’t feel like it’s what the director really wanted to explore. When it comes to uncovering the film’s themes, I think the key is to focus on the family drama portion of the film, although the third act does taint how all of that is interpreted in hindsight. Adopting a metaphorical approach, one could argue the movie depicts the Hell a family goes through when grieving a tragedy. It also touches on other issues such as isolation, miscommunication, and vulnerability. Yet even with all this taken into consideration, ultimately I didn’t learn anything new about life from this film.
In order to discuss my biggest concern, I will need to explain my own personal journey of faith. About a decade ago I found myself in a depressed state and angry with God. I used horror films as an outlet, though not only did they fill my head with terrible ideas considering my mental state back then, but they also tempted me to spend hours looking up things in the dark places of the Internet. I grew obsessed with occult practices and everything macabre (it was all “research” in my mind of course, even though God never asked this of me), and naturally, this led to a heavy bout of spiritual warfare. Thanks to God’s grace, I’m still here today (ironically the horror films that were my downfall also contained the tools I needed to dig myself out of the hole I’d created, but that’s another story)!
I didn’t touch horror movies for a good seven years afterward. I fled from the stuff. In that time I pursued drama and film professionally. Eventually, I realized my avoidance of the genre had become a problem in itself. I feared those films as though they still had power over me, and I felt they had become a barrier to truly experiencing freedom in Christ. Those days are truly over, and today I have a healthy relationship with the medium, now viewing them as a more mature, fully-equipped adult. It brings me joy to write reviews like this as I feel my journey has come full circle.
So, the problem? If I had watched Hereditary back then, it would have been a major stumbling block. The worst aspect is that the film doesn’t explain everything, and if the viewer wishes to gain more of an insight, then they need to do some personal research into what is fact or fiction. For those who are struggling with an occult addiction, or you’re worried that maybe you’re a little too obsessed with everything macabre, then Hereditary will send you five hours deep into the weird, dark rabbit warrens of the Internet. It’s a film that demands a lot of focus on the supernatural realm, and it’s not exactly useful in regards to what is actually learned at the end of the day.
Spoiler-ish discussion has now ended!
Hereditary is a film that tears me in two. The film critic in me relishes this film’s unique technical elements and admires how beautifully structured everything is. It’s a film I want to see again in order to fully appreciate Ari Aster’s artistic vision. The Christian in me, however, cannot recommend it. The nature of the film’s dramatic conclusion and its lack of thematic justification needs to be flagged. I can only hope that I have provided enough information here (without spoiling too much!) to help you decide which half suits your personal situation.
+ Redefines the genre + Creepy atmosphere, deeply unsettling + Masterful cinematography + Bold editing choices + Oscar-worthy performances + Clever script that demands a second look
- Exposition can feel clunky - Might be too much of a mystery for some viewers - A rowdy audience will destroy the cinematic experience - Requires homework on the audience's part to fully comprehend the plot - Questionable content for Christian viewers
The Bottom Line
Hereditary is a technically strong film that borders on being flawless with its execution. Genre-defining, it’ll be studied for years to come. However the film’s content and lack of Biblical messages should give Christians cause for concern.