I don’t watch many films these days. I don’t like going to the cinema; before this year, I think the last time I went was to see X+Y when it came out in 2014.
Jetlag has meant I haven’t been sleeping especially well recently, so last Friday I decided to take myself to the cinema at 10pm since I wasn’t going to be falling asleep before about 3 anyway. I went to see Hereditary, because it’d been praised as genuinely creepy by film critics. I’m not a fan of jump scares because I don’t find them scary, but genuine creepiness can be quite fun. I loved The Orphanage, for example, because the ending was so banal that you could see the events of the film unfolding in your own life.
Endings are so important, aren’t they? They can make or break an entire movie. Unfortunately the ending of Hereditary broke it.
Hereditary starts out pretty slowly. Initially I was impressed by the camera work, then I got used to it being beautifully framed and became bored because it wasn’t very fast paced. I spent about an hour wondering if much was going to happen and thinking I probably should have just bought sweet popcorn since the salty version wasn’t very good.
After that it het up for a bit though, mainly due to the utterly fantastic acting of Toni Collette. I’ve seen her in various things before, but nothing that really stood out. I know her face in that sort of vague, I’m sure you’ve been in stuff I’ve quite enjoyed way, but her performance in this film is something I doubt I’ll forget in a hurry. I really think she deserves an Oscar for her facial expressions alone.
Honestly. I didn’t love the film because I hated the ending, but it’s worth seeing just to watch Collette absolutely nail the part of someone who’s unravelling as her whole world falls apart. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
During the dinner table scene above, there’s this moment you don’t quite see in this clip where her face morphs into hatred. Not into a person hating another person, but actual hatred. Like, she becomes the physical embodiment of hatred. It is utterly terrifying and completely wonderful. I never knew “that face on her face” could do so many expressions.
Another stand-out performance comes from Milly Shapiro who plays Charlie, the creepy daughter who barely speaks and makes little clicking noises with her tongue. She has a stillness about her that’s hard to teach, and an unsettling way of staring into the middle distance that makes her perfect for this role.
She looks all at once curious, fucked up and slightly broken. She has a kind of ethereal quality that makes her seem not quite of this world – aptly, as we find out later.
I’d been hoping for a film that wasn’t full of jump scares, and on that front I was satisfied. The creepiness is evenly spread throughout the movie rather than being saved up for quick jolts of adrenaline, and there’s a nice use of silence and moments when the camera gradually pans out or closes in on a scene. The perspectives, the camera shots, and the characters’ expressions are what makes the film watchable. It is strangely beautiful in an otherworldly sort of way.
The opening shot is of a dolls’ house, with the camera panning in to a single room where Peter, the teenage son, is sleeping. His father enters to wake Peter up so he can go to his grandmother’s funeral. This immediately sets us up with the idea that the characters in the play are living in a world that’s not quite real; like they’re playthings for some greater force. And I suppose they were.
Although I hadn’t read any spoilers, I’d seen the title of a review that said something along the lines of ‘What is with that ending?’ so I went in expecting the unexpected at the end. All the way through I was trying to read the film on multiple levels, and I think by doing so I gave it more credit than it deserved. I’d been expecting the ending to shock or disturb me, but instead the last twenty minutes of the film just made me – and several other audience members – laugh. The explanation seemed so ridiculous when it was sprung upon us so suddenly that rather than being unnerving it was just amusing.
I’ve read reviews since which talk about how it was a metaphor for other things, mental illness being the main one. Shortly after the aforementioned death of Peter’s grandmother, his mother Annie goes to a grief group to talk about her loss. While she’s there she discusses her family’s mental health problems: her father starved himself to death, she tells a stunned circle of people, and her mother had DID, and her brother had schizophrenia and thought his mother was trying to “put people inside him” and he died by suicide too.
When I heard all that I groaned internally. Was this going to be another “crazy people are scary” film? We have enough denigration of mental illness in the world already without needing to make yet another film about it. And then we get to know Charlie, the daughter, a bit better and we see her proclivities for making clicking noises, creating strange robots, and decapitating birds, and we think… hmm, OK, there’s a crazy little girl.
And that’s a trope that’s been done to death too, right? We don’t need any more creepy little girls in horror stories. It doesn’t turn into that, though, for which I was grateful. Unfortunately it turns into something even weirder.
So, we have a couple of narrowly-avoided horror tropes, some beautiful camera work, some truly stunning acting, and an ending that lets down the whole film. When I left the cinema I tweeted this:
And yet I’ve spent at least four hours today reading other people’s reviews of it, and watching bits of it again, and watching critics talk about it on YouTube, and watching interviews with the cast and director, so there’s definitely something compelling about it.
I’m even thinking about going back to see it a second time, because I imagine it’d feel very different to watch it knowing what the ending will be. All the way through the film you’re sort of led to believe one specific thing is going on, and it turns out that’s not the case at all. And while it could almost be a metaphor for mental illness, the ending is way too literal to be able to carry that off.
The more I think about Hereditary, the more annoyed I am about the ending. It had so much potential, and I can see why people are saying it’s the horror film of a generation. But the ending just turns it into a risible lark, a laughing-stock that doesn’t do justice to the wonderful work everyone put in.
Having spent a couple of days ruminating about it, I suppose I’d have to recommend that you go and see it, because normally I forget what a film’s been about as soon as I leave the cinema. (I wish I were exaggerating. My memory for visual media is atrocious.) This one’s stuck with me for at least a weekend though, and I reckon bits of it will stay in my head for a while. And I’ll certainly be looking out for what Milly Shapiro and Toni Collette do next.