Questioning Hereditary

Walking out of the theater after Hereditary, my friend and I had some questions, that carried on over texts on the way home and, after a night of sleeping on it, it’s this perplexing feeling you walk out with that makes Ari Aster’s movie excel.

****Spoilers For Hereditary****

While watching the movie, when the third act horror stuff kicks in, for a few beats I was sort of wishing to myself that the film would have just stayed the harrowing domestic drama centered around grief that it had mostly been. Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne and Alex Wolff are all great in their roles, and watching them wade through the misery was worth the price of entry alone. Wolff in particular impressed me, as he is being eaten alive with guilt, only compounded every few minutes as his mother, Collette, starts to become undone as she dabbles in the dark arts to communicate with her loved ones. Aster gives us just enough rope to climb into Collette’s head, letting the viewer separate her breakdown from the supernatural and instead pairing it with the mental illness that has plagued her family history. Collette is excellent, and watching her become a part in her own way, letting the tragedy in her life rip the filter off every horrific thought she’s ever thought in her head. Byrne is the straight man here, and maybe a tad underutilized, but his calm in the middle of the building storm surrounding them helps keep the film grounded in reality; until it isn’t. There is a lot of great material here, a domestic horror film with no need for spooky theatrics, so you could imagine my pause in enthusiasm as Aster starts taking things full horror movie.

Yes, Aster is planting seeds from the get go to the greater conspiracy and supernatural elements surrounding the Graham family and the recent death in their family, but we start getting into the film’s endgame and the other shoe never dropped on what all of those things meant. We are left flailing trying to put the pieces together as pandemonium begins to fill the Graham household, and while that lost feeling was unsettling, frustrating even, it works in hindsight once you have all of the pieces; well, most of them.

The movie is sure to reward a re-watch or two, as there were a lot of subtle clues I caught on first viewing that I’m sure many missed. Also, knowing the film’s end game will surely put you in a place to look/spot more clues and puzzle pieces to put it all together; helping to answer some of those lingering questions I want to dig into here. That said, this isn’t going to just be questions about the plot, but maybe also Aster’s thematic intentions with the material touched on in this film.

What Good Is There To Come To You If You Have Children?
I know this is kind of a worst case scenario film, but Collette’s character, Annie, and Aster by proxy, seem to be constantly weighing/challenging the conventional thinking of having them. Annie has nearly done some horrible things to her children, says many horrible things to them, and, ultimately has to feel all the pain for her inability to be able to protect them. Annie was raised by a mother that hated her own children (having probably killed Annie’s brother with some satanic magic and helped put in place the pieces necessary to have Annie’s own family destroyed by her satanic cult buddies) and while that trait might be hereditary to her as well, she lived a pretty seemingly shitty life dwelling on her past while trying to keep it all together. There are no positive takeaways here about parenting, with everyone being punished

Is There A Trumpism/White Male Patriarchy Parallel To The Cult?
The master manipulators of Hereditary turns out to be this satanic cult that the family’s grandmother used to be a part of, trying to bring the spirit of a hell king to the mortal realm. Probably a dry run before they make a go at Satan. I got some political vibes a couple of times in the film and was feeling it for sure once the film ends. Here you have a bunch of older white people, doing whatever they can to maintain the white male as their person in power. Eliminating Charlie, who is apparently the reincarnated spirit they worship (more on that later), so they can try to manipulate the soul into the body of Peter is a pretty complicated plan to maintain white male supremacy. But look around at our world today, and all the black flips people do to buy into the idea that we must be lead by a white male at any cost, especially if the alternative is a woman. I don’t think it is much of a stretch.

Is There Even A Demon The Cult Is Summoning?
There is no doubt there is a supernatural element to this film. Possession, ghosts, witchcraft, dark magic, all of these things are happening in Hereditary, but is the satanic cults plan of summoning their demon of choice to the earthly plane actually happening? At the end of the film, I read it as Charlie’s spirit in the body of Peter, not the demon, and that made me rethink everything that happened before hand.

If Charlie’s Spirit Is The One At The End, Was She Trying To Help Her Family Or Destroy It?
Charlie turning into an evil spirit gave me pause in the middle of this film. Why is she so angry, besides obvious reasons of her brother getting her killed, I don’t know why she would want to punish this family; even if flawed. I think you can look at the actions of her spirit at the end of the film as trying to protect her family, not destroy it. The death of the father, Steve, can easily be attributed to the cult’s witchcraft, as they had clearly compromised the Graham house much before they started filling it with creepy smiling naked dues. The film even leaves clues that they are at the house, and probably in the house, very early on. Someone watching from the treehouse, their breath filling the frame as we watch Peter blow his smoke out the window, being the earliest tell I picked up. Or was the fact that grandma’s room’s door being open earlier? Either way, a lot of the violence can be chalked up to witchcraft of the cult, while the actions of Charlie’s spirit seem more protective.

When that final sequence starts, Annie/Charlie is hovering over Peter, so why not just take him then, or in his sleep? She instead floats off to the place she knows he will be most at risk, hoping he discovers the horror that has happened to his father, and then tries to scare him out of the house. But he heads up the attic, a place the cult/coven has great power in, and her banging her head on the closed door is one out of frustration (plus, some incredibly terrifying imagery).

The scene in the attic is harder to explain, as Annie decapitating herself doesn’t seem to be as easily defensible of Charlie being in control; why chop off the head of her mother? But the look on Annie’s face isn’t glee as the demon is about to get his prize, but terror that Peter is a step away from falling into the hands of the cult. If Annie was killed before Charlie entered her body, this would explain my good guy theory a bit more, but we don’t see that possession happen.

Peter leaping out the window is a downer ending, the Graham’s unable to save any of their own lives, but Charlie taking possession and curiously following her mother’s floating corpse is something I could see her doing at this all is lost moment.

There is no way to get around the depressing ending of the film, and the fact it was carried out by a self-righteous religious group makes it all the more frustrating (in a good way) to me.

How Much Does This Film Hate Religion?
Yes, we are dealing with some satanic cult members here, but isn’t every religion a crazy fucking idea until you convince/murder/torture the majority of people to believe in it? While the cult is almost all background until the end, it is still painted as an awful, violent group, that will take any means necessary to get what they want and I don’t imagine the faithfulness to ancient texts and the subjugation of women leaders was lost on Aster as a parallel to every religion that has ever existed.

This film is a deep thought exercise if you want it to be, a visceral family tragedy if that is more your speed, or an unsettling horror movie in its finale. Hereditary has a lot to offer, and while I wasn’t sure I would want to rewatch it sitting in that theater, thinking about it has me wanting to dive back into the pandemonium of this film.

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