Fractured family in the house of grief

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Hereditary (MA). Director: Ari Aster. Starring: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd. 128 minutes

Toni Collette in HereditaryHereditary has been billed as 'this generation's The Exorcist'. It's both an apt and a limited comparison. That 1973 film was at core a story of a priest, Jesuit Father Damien Karras, who has lost his faith and regains it through his confrontation with, and contemplation of, pure evil, in the form of a demon that has taken possession of the body of a young girl. It was based on a novel whose Catholic author, William Peter Blatty, believed in demonic possession as a literal reality.

Hereditary also concerns itself with demonic forces, and it is deep-gut terrifying in a similar fashion to The Exorcist. However it lacks the earlier film's essential devoutness and is also more complexly allegorical. Its supernatural goings-on can be variously read as symbols for the processing of grief; for the corrupting influence of unatoned guilt; for the scars of generational trauma; for anxieties around parenthood or, rather more problematically, for severe mental illness.

As the film opens, Annie Graham (Collette) has just lost her mother. The two shared a strained relationship, and after the funeral Annie begins secretly to attend a support group for bereaved people, where she struggles to process her mixed emotions. Annie is a professional miniatures artist and is on deadline with a gallery, but her art also becomes a lens for self-examination, as she pores over diminutive versions of the various sites of her grief and anguish.

The pressure of all this starts to get to her, especially when she begins to suspect that her mother is haunting her. This exacerbates pre-existing familial tensions; her husband Steve (Byrne) is caring in a mildly condescending way, but he is more concerned with the wellbeing of their two children. Tellingly, Annie doesn't tell him about the support meetings. Likewise, when he gets a disturbing phone call from the cemetery where Annie's mother was buried, he keeps it to himself.

There is also a palpable distance between Annie and her son Peter (Wolff). True, Peter is a teenage boy, preoccupied with parties, drugs and girls. However the underlying reasons for the fractures in this mother-son relationship turn out to be rather more shocking than that. Eventually they are laid bare by a horrifying sequence of events that leaves both Annie and Peter grappling with guilt, loss, shame, and mutual distrust. There are fatal consequences to this disconnect.

By contrast, Annie coddles 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Shapiro). Charlie shares her mother's artistic bent, albeit with a preference for macabre sketches and misshapen dolls cobbled from bric-a-brac. She is also more than a little offbeat, and not just with her somewhat creepy habit of nervously clicking her tongue. There is something just not quite right with Charlie. To be sure it is deeply upsetting to see a child discretely take a pair of scissors to a dead bird.

 

"This takes Annie's conviction that she is being haunted to a new level. But is it legitimate, or just a symptom of her grief, and a reluctance to let go?"

 

Things get darker and stranger as the film wears on. Especially once Annie meets Joan (Dowd), a fellow support-group attendee. Joan is grieving the loss of her son and grandson, and initially penetrates Annie's defences with empathy. Later, she introduces to Annie a ritual by which to communicate with the dead. This has the result of taking Annie's conviction that she is being haunted to a new level. But is it legitimate, or just a symptom of her grief, and a reluctance to let go?

As writer-director Aster keeps us guessing. He plays copiously with perspective and perception. The camera zooms in on a replica of the family home, and only when human figures appear in the room do we realise there has been a seamless switch from miniature to life-sized. Or Steve enters a tree house, and is framed in such a way that Charlie appears like a giant in the foreground. These visual tricks and some well-executed jump scares keep the viewer constantly unsettled.

This extends beyond the visuals. We experience most of the story through Annie, but pivot frequently to Peter's perspective. Whose story is this ultimately? Are the suggestions there is a family history of violent psychosis the key to decoding the supernatural phenomena and their gruesome outcomes? Aster's grim fable is in the end surreal rather than literal, but leaves the viewer with plenty to ponder, along with, no doubt, a few sleepless nights on which to ponder them.

  

  

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Hereditary, Ari Aster, Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, The Exorcist

 

 

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Horror movies are a paradox. They are morality tales, to tell the viewer that wandering among the realms of the prince of the power of the air can make you sick, but, as secular artifices cognisant of the commercial consequences of proselytization or evangelisation, without telling you that you’re always wandering in these realms anyway, the evil entity not being scripturally described as the prince of the power of the air for nothing, and that that some spiritual vaccination might be in order. For cinematic effect, without which there is no box office, the ‘parlour tricks’, as one exorcist described some of the special effects he encountered, have to be hyped while, in reality, the signs of demonic oppression and possession, because of divine restraint, are relatively low-key, usually appearing as behaviour not very different from signs of mental illness. Those who see these films as morality tales already know what to do while those who need to know what to do mostly leave the theatre as seeds scattered on hard ground or, perhaps, in thin soil.
Roy Chen Yee | 09 June 2018


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