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Fractured family in the house of grief

  • 06 June 2018


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

Hereditary 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