Grief has a demonic presence in Hereditary, a slow-burn horror movie that spends much of its time in deep sadness before descending into occult madness. If the sadness feels more palpable, it’s because horror is always more effective when it’s insinuating, rather than literal.
A sense of insinuation pervades the film for much of its running time, right from its opening moments. The Graham family is grieving. Annie (Toni Collette) has lost her elderly mother, who spent her dying days in Annie’s home. Along with her husband (Gabriel Byrne) and children Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro), Annie goes through the required routine—wake, burial—but with conflicted emotions. We learn that Annie’s mother was peculiar and distant, and that the mother and daughter had an estranged relationship. Only Charlie, a middle schooler with odd habits (like cutting the head off a dead bird), seemed to connect with her grandmother. Something eerie is in the air.
At its best, Hereditary taps into the reality that grief involves more than missing loved ones. It also involves regret, anger, and—as Annie puts it in a riveting, reluctant confession at a group therapy session—blame. This is why grief haunts. For Annie, she finds less catharsis in group therapy than in channeling her feelings into her artwork: intricately detailed dioramas and miniatures. She’s been commissioned by a gallery for a major project, but keeps getting distracted by more personal efforts, including a terrifying recreation of her and her husband’s bedroom, with her mother’s ghostly figure standing in the doorway watching them sleep.
Written and directed by Ari Aster, Hereditary employs Annie’s miniatures as an ingenious visual motif. The movie’s bravura opening shot is a deceptive zoom in on one of the dioramas she has built in her studio, which imperceptibly transitions into a full-scale shot of Peter’s bedroom as he wakes up. As increasingly strange things occur—the desecration of Annie’s mother’s grave, a glittering light in Charlie’s room—the miniatures capture the sense that the Grahams are trapped in some sort of evil dollhouse, where an unseen force is orchestrating their lives. As things escalate, Aster even begins to move his camera through the walls of their house as if it were a miniature, blending the sense of the real world and one that is sinsterly controlled.
A sense of insinuation pervades the film.
Collette anchors all of this supernaturality with a powerhouse performance. That group-therapy scene is a standout because of the modulation she exhibits, balancing both big and small notes in one raw moment. Equally compelling is a quieter scene later on, in which she says something out loud that she hasn’t allowed herself to fully face. Collette instantly gives a little pause after uttering it, listening to how it sounds. On her face, you can see the reality of what she has just expressed sinking in for the first time.
Annie’s sorrow eventually becomes too much to bear, and in its final third we begin to wonder whether all the oddness that’s been going on really points to something or if she has suffered a psychotic break (Collette goes big enough to suggest the latter). The movie decides to give us an answer in its finale, revealing the truth about Annie’s mother in all its awfulness. There is some satisfaction in receiving this information, but in the process the movie loses both its mystery and its metaphorical potency. Hereditary eventually shows us literal monsters, but in doing so forgets that nothing is scarier than the monsters—such as grief—that exist in our heads.