I got the chance to see an early screening of the new horror film and film festival favorite, Hereditary, followed by a live-streamed Q&A with the director, Ari Aster. When asked about what he was trying to accomplish with the film, he recounted how he wanted to make a movie about trauma and grief but thought that horror was a more commercial way to go than family drama.
While I can understand the pressures a young filmmaker might feel to get his first film made, his answer to that question spoke to the issues I had with his final product. Although Hereditary was heralded as the scariest movie in years and the next Exorcist, I thought the movie failed to pull together a cohesive story or to be very scary.
Hereditary opens on a family mourning the loss of their complicated, private matriarch and mother to Annie (Toni Collette). In a family with a heavy history of mental illness, Annie struggles with feelings of guilt and bemusement over her apparent lack of sadness over her mother’s death. Charlie (Milly Shapiro), Annie’s 13 year-old daughter, was closest to her grandmother and starts to exhibit odd(er) behaviors. Meanwhile, tensions grow between Annie and her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and son, Peter (Alex Wolff). In a support group, Annie meets a mysterious woman (Ann Dowd) who puts her in touch with the other side, and from there things spiral out of control.
I will not spoil the plot twists, but Hereditary was not so much scary as deeply unsettling. There are events that happen to the family that are horrifying on their own, even before the horror genre elements begin. I think the film would have still been upsetting as a family drama and the story would have made more sense. Instead, it feels like the horror bits are woven in, not always effectively, and when the story finally turns fully to the scary parts, the result felt cliched and unnecessary. I have some big questions about cause and effect in this plot.
That said, the sets, lighting, effects and music work solidly together to create an intense feeling of dread. Annie is in the midst of putting together an art exhibit comprised of miniatures and the use of her small-scale scenes is eerie and intriguing. The family’s house is framed in such a way that it also looks a bit like a doll house or one of Annie’s projects and it adds to the feeling that something is looming or watching them at home.
The performances are outstanding. Toni Collette is rarely anything short of fantastic and she delivers some heart-stoppingly good scenes of anguish. The kids really carry a lot of the film. Milly Shapiro’s Charlie is so withdrawn and odd that she contributes to the feelings of dread. The story basically calls for Peter to have a gradual nervous breakdown and Alex Wolff’s performance is moving, stressful, and indicative of some real talent.
Hereditary feels like two movies melded messily together. It would have been much stronger had Aster stuck with the trauma element or chosen a more creative way to bring horror to the picture. For me, this movie was a huge let down. I’ll admit that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, but it was not satisfying and the issues with the narrative outweigh the style with which the film was made. For me it comes in at a 3/5 stars.
Hereditary was written and directed by Ari Aster. It runs 2 hours 7 minutes and is rated R for many good reasons.
And now for something completely different: I also saw Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the new documentary about Fred Rogers and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. If you get a chance to see it, I highly recommend it. The documentary covers the 31-year run of the children’s program and Rogers’ rise to cultural authority. Rather than focus solely on Rogers’ philosophy of taking seriously the feelings of children and the importance of kindness and love, the film also discusses the frustrations, doubts, and insecurities of Fred Rogers himself. The result is a compelling, moving portrait of the man that also engages with important questions about the role of entertainment, how to make a difference, and the impact one person can have. I knew that the movie would make me cry, but I was surprised by how thought-provoking and nuanced it was. The film uses a variety of archival footage, interviews with those close to Rogers and who worked on the show, and animated sequences; and the result is beautiful, but not overly-sentimental or nostalgic. I loved this movie.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was directed by Morgan Neville. It runs 1 hour and 34 minutes and is rated PG-13
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