(The following is a spoiler-free review of Hereditary)
I’ll admit it. When I first walked out of Hereditary, the first thing I thought about was how scathing my review of the film would be. I was fully prepared to absolutely tear this film apart from the ground up, because the transgressions against my senses could not go unpunished. In fact, my friends and I stood outside of the theater afterwards and tore the film apart because it was so laughably bad.
But something weird happened. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
That night I read other reviews and was surprised at how much people liked it. It was almost like my friends and I were the odd men (and women) out; the film was a huge success among critics. So I read and I researched and I pored over a hundred different analyses of the film, all in an effort to find what I missed. As I lay there panting and exhausted hours later, it finally hit me. I finally saw the appeal of the film.
But let’s back this up just a little and talk about the film itself.
If you haven’t heard about it, Hereditary is the debut feature film of upcoming writer/director Ari Asseter and was published by A24, the 6-year-old Indie production company already responsible for critical darlings like Room, the Academy Award Winning Moonlight, and even James Franco’s The Disaster Artist. It’s actually the second A24 horror film that I’ve watched, after 2017’s It Comes at Night, which I absolutely hated. My initial mixed reaction to Hereditary made sense, considering that it has a similar pace and aesthetic to It Comes at Night; it’s no wonder that I was having traumatic flashbacks to that 2017 film while watching Hereditary.
Both films are definitely art pieces first and coherent movies second. While watching Hereditary, I was reminded time and time again of the surreal, dream-like imagery that populated It Comes at Night. And both films were sloooooow. God were they slow. I don’t even hate slow films (The Shining is one of my favorite horror movies of all time), but there has to be enough content there to justify the length, which I didn’t feel was the case. It Comes at Night felt like a trudge at 91 minutes, but Hereditary clocks in at an even longer 127 minutes. And the worst part is, it probably could have cut about 30 minutes and been just fine.
The main problem I have with the film is that it feels like two films in one, which I can only slightly use to attack the film because it was exactly what Hereditary was going for. On one hand, you have this compelling and dramatic and very grounded look at a family torn apart by tragedy. It’s a heartbreaking look into what loss can do to a person and reminded me of 2015’s Babadook and how that film tackled grief and loss by personifying them into the film’s titular monster. On the other hand, you have a spooky haunted house movie with silly supernatural elements that are almost laughable in their camp. It’s such a jarring juxtaposition that just didn’t completely work for me (and the laughter in the theater told me it probably didn’t work for others, either).
There’s something to be said as well for sweeping out the rug from beneath an audience. The film I got for the first 90 or so minutes, while it had its faults, was a film I was completely and 100% on board with. The film it became towards the end completely baffled me and made the beautiful character-building and emotional moments earlier in the film seem like unnecessary filler for what obviously wanted to be a cheesy horror movie. It’s honestly hard for me not to spoil the film during this review to drive my point home, but I will resist in the off chance that you want to see this movie.
I think part of the problem was that the movie seemed to go all-in on one story and tone and then made a jarring and unexpected shift that I wasn’t prepared for. Because I’d completely bought into the film it had been, I think that maybe the shift was so disappointing because I was absolutely sold on the original story the movie was telling. To have that better movie taken from me and replaced by the one I wasn’t prepared for was shocking and initially disappointing.
But that’s where all the post-movie analysis came in. I realized that there was literally a ton of stuff that I had missed in my first viewing, that made that third act shift not only make sense but seem perfectly natural. And trust me when I say this: that is incredibly hard to do. I’m not the kind of person who half-watches a movie while browsing Facebook on their cell phone. I love immersing myself in a film and picking up every little detail, which makes it even more disappointing to me that this movie apparently went way over my head. I wasn’t the only one though, which leads me to believe that maybe the film is slightly at fault for not being a little more obvious in the buildup. It does have a terribly cringe-inducing monologue right at the end that explains all of what’s been happening (the single worst part of the movie in my opinion), but a movie shouldn’t have to have that sort of in-your-face explicitness just to make sense. There needs to be a balance there between hand-holding and subtle storytelling, which Hereditary seemed to struggle with maintaining.
Overall, the movie isn’t half-bad. The acting is solid, the direction is interesting and just downright powerful at times, and there are images and moments from the film that have been permanently burned into my brain since that fateful first viewing. Unfortunately, this kind of gets lost over the course of the film’s identity crisis, dreadfully slow pacing, and far-too-subtle storytelling, which is almost certain to alienate a lot of casual film-goers. But if you’re willing to put in the work to stick with it and really pay close attention, Hereditary could be a very enjoyable film with as much to pick apart afterwards as The Shining.