This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
'''’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
There’s a line of dialogue from an Aster short released a little over two years ago that goes like this:
“You know what Freud says about the nature of horror? He says it’s when the home becomes un-homelike. Unheimlich. And that’s what this place has become.”
Hereditary takes this statement and stretches it out to the very breaking point, where the material of it runs so thin that it becomes near translucent, reflective. Unheimlich. We look at the un-homelike space and see our own lives and experiences mingle with fiction.
The home in this film is the emotional conflict at its core, present in all characters. Each of them are desperately yearning to be understood in a way that provides catharsis and solace, but none of them are able to connect to each other or convey how they’re feeling: Charlie’s untethered spirit isolates her from her parents in the same way that Peter’s cowardice or lack of accountability does, Steve’s steadfast passive nature only serves to kindle and stoke Annie’s brightly stubborn flame. The realism of character motivation here is what really sells it, what really allows us to tumble into this world and inhabit it the same way those on screen do: Peter’s actions after the car accident stick out the most here. What else could you do but lie awake in bed for hours, writhing in agonising guilt and the remnants of a sour high until someone else’s screaming drags you up?
Too often in the horror genre are we saddled with protagonists operating under the whim of the dreaded ‘jump scare’: for example, character X does the stupid thing no one would ever do in that situation so ghost Y can pop up with one of those stretchy Blumhouse Production distended-jaws, you know the ones. Rinse and repeat for a little over an hour, job done. However in Hereditary, character X does the terrible, only-option thing they can do in that situation, so they have to live with those consequences and the fact that it colours their personality and everyone else’s around them, creating a hostile atmosphere that shoots right to the ‘discomfort’ section of your brain and lingers there. And that all comes before the nightmare fuel really begins—so that’s the home.
The impeccably controlled camera forces us to stare into this disjointed and irregular home the Graham family have unhappily declared theirs—we spy on the intricacies of their personal lives like greedy voyeurs, obsessed cult members, nosy art commissioners that just won’t stop calling. There’s something not quite right about that, being privy to the extensive rotting of a family tree that isn’t yours. We are at once connected to these characters and complicit in their demise, sharing in their burdens of shock, horror and emotional pain as well as the burden of sticking it through until the bitter end. Intruders make a home un-homelike, and here they come from Annie’s side of the family and our side of the screen. As the familial unit grows weaker Paimon is able to wriggle his way closer and closer to the one thing he needs: intruding their lives, intruding their bodies. So that’s when the home is no longer a home, and becomes unheimlich.
And we’re just left to stew in that, the horrible realisation of life that has been sliced and snuffed out, doused and burnt up. And we were powerless the whole time, forced to look and feel all of it somewhere deep and ugly within us churning with catharsis every step of the way, chasing that breathless release after a moment of dread falls through into synaptic horror.
Peter is supposed to be weighing in about Heracles in class. Teacher says: “So he thinks he has control. But let’s all remember, Sophocles wrote the oracle so that it was unconditional—meaning Heracles never had any choice. So does that make it more tragic or less tragic that he has a choice?”
The unseen voice of a girl pipes up, saving Peter from continuing his uninspired attempt at dodging the question: “I think it’s more tragic because, if it’s all just inevitable then that means that the characters had no hope. They never had hope, because they’re all just like hopeless—they’re all like pawns in this horrible, hopeless machine.”
Peter has no say in this narrative parallel to his life, and so clings desperately to hope in his last moments: the slap of a face to wake from a nightmare, a last-ditch flight instinct of shattered glass and a steep fall. Annie does too with her shrieking protests in front of a face consumed by flames, and Charlie’s gut-twistingly innocent scrabble to open the car window is brimming with hope before it’s dashed. We all know the Graham family are pawns.
But then which does that make us, the viewer? Pawns alongside them or the horrible, hopeless machine that finds catharsis in their suffering?