Hereditary (2018)

Written and directed by: Ari Aster 

   Hereditary               Last fall, commenting on some of the horror highlights of 2017, I noted they had a quality which I described as “thorough horror.” This is to say that these films were rife with disturbing details, which either were mere compliments to the main horror (It) or were complete red-herrings (The Killing of a Sacred Deer). Hereditary feels like a film made in a similar vein. The good side of this is that it regularly reinvigorates viewers with shots of eerie excitement. The negative side is that, unlike the aforementioned movies, thorough horror is not a mere trait of Hereditary, but its premise.

In order to explain this matter further I will have to spoil a little of the film, not too much, but perhaps more than I’d like. Since surprise is particularly important to the experience of watching a horror film, consider yourself warned.

 

Hereditary opens with a funeral eulogy, as miniaturist artist and mother of two Annie Graham (Toni Collette) speaks on the life of her mother, a woman who was distant from her family and whom we latter learn struggled with a mental illness. When Graham and her family return home we get the sense that her son Peter (aged roughly 16) (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (13) (Milly Shapiro) did not feel close to, or at least can not be outwardly emotional about their grandmother. We further learn that Charlie never cried as a baby. Finally, we learn she is into art projects, one of which involves decapitating a pigeon corpse.

When I said I would have to spoil things I’ll say this much: the grandmother is a red herring (to a degree at least), and Charlie, the disturbed grand-daughter is certainly a red herring. Can I say certainly? It’s hard to say with the plot of this film: anyway, Charlie is not one of the film’s antagonists, and the grandmother’s funeral feels like the first five minutes of a Simpson’s episode (as in its there to be interesting, but is almost unnecessary for the ultimate plot trajectory).

Another oddity in the film’s development is its use of a dollhouse motif. We regularly see Annie at work. The instant appearance of the dollhouse in the film sets up the audience to figure it is part of the logic of the film’s horror. Annie, we are lead to believe, is intentionally or unintentionally doing some sort of voodoo work. This (as far as I could tell), is yet again a red herring. The logic of the film’s horror has nothing to do with dollhouse voodooism.

Now you may say, why do you keep throwing the term red herring around like it’s a bad thing? Horror movies are mysteries in a way, and red herrings are an essential part of the mystery genre. I agree on this point, and thus should qualify, Hereditary is not a bad film due to its rifeness with red-herrings. It can be appreciated as a collection of vignettes: a bit with a séance, a bit with a cult, a bit with sleepwalking, etc. What frustrated me about Hereditary, however, is that a) these vignettes were not quite vignettes (alone they did not have beginnings, middles and ends) and b) they did not feel like they were contributing to a thorough story. Sure, it matters that Peter and Annie have deep issues between each other, but this never seems to add up to anything, and only marginally matters when the film’s final confrontation takes place.

It’s hard to say what it would take to fix Hereditary since lots of its individual components are strong. The dialogue is believable, the horror/occult elements are creatively introduced, and the concluding scene is visually, if not narratively, satisfying. Perhaps, its problem, however, is that it tries to both be a thorough horror film, while also maintaining a subtle affect. Perhaps horror films don’t need to make sense, they can be collections of beautiful chaos. It’s hard, however, to be beautifully chaotic, when you constantly interrupt your nightmare scenes with realist depictions of mourning family dynamics. Another way to put it, is that horror movies can have two possible agendas: 1) to scare, or 2) to leverage horror as a mechanism to tell a witty story. Aesthetically, Hereditary took approach 2, but its aspirations seem more in line with agenda 1.

Then again, I could be missing something. I, for one. still find the title confusing, unless the writers felt simply having a family in your story justifies it being called Hereditary.

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Mother! (2017)

Written and directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Mother!2017There are indie films that challenge you to take pleasure in raw sound effects, awkward human interactions and mundanely beautiful settings. There are big budget action films replete with explosions and chaos. Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is an overwhelming blend of both. The film has earned praise and scorn alike, yet if viewed in a vacuum one can appreciate it as a work that unites audiences: its subtlety and melodrama are so smoothly connected that viewers who come to see one level of intensity can leave having appreciated another.

 

Mother! admittedly did not win me over right away. The film makes use of handheld cameras, and “Mother” (Jennifer Lawrence)’s constant walks up spiral staircases can be dizzying. The initial appearance of Mother’s husband, “Him” (Javier Bardem) is also off-putting. The character seems under-acted: he is calm compared to the regularly anxious Mother, and normal compared to the quirky houseguests they soon come to deal with. Him does not come across as a mild-mannered person, but as someone out-of-step with the realism of the piece: like a rookie-actor reading lines. Bardem, of course, is no rookie. Without giving away too much, it should be said that his disconcerting performance is in fact praiseworthy, for his character indeed has a different relationship to realism than that of his fellow characters.

 

The indie-realist side of Mother! is essential to its disjointed, narrative structure. The film is slow to develop a clear plot trajectory. I ts story develops as, slowly at first, various strangers show up and decide to reside at Mother and Him’s house. The first guest (Ed Harris) is a somewhat peculiar, dying man. He is later joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), who’s eccentricness is far more obnoxious and threatening than Harris’. Were the film to end after the seemingly final confrontation between Mother, Him and this couple, it would be a passable, stand alone work. Pfeiffer is a compelling antagonist, and her lack-of-boundaries in contrast to Mother’s decency foreshadows the drama that follows.

 

It is after Pfeiffer’s departure, however, that the film becomes truly compelling. Mother!’s story proceeds to explore issues from celebrity, to artistry, to late capitalism and borders, becoming more and more disturbing as it proceeds. While it is certainly not pleasant to watch, the film’s strength is that it never reaches a point where it runs out of ideas: there is always a new twist, always a new tragedy. Kristen Wiig, for example, is introduced as a striking recurring character as the film nears its conclusion, illustrating the film’s tireless plotline.

 

Mother!’s grandiosity has led some critics to write it off as pretentious and self-centred, with some claiming that it is Aronofsky’s arrogant attempt to portray the challenge of a writer (Bardem) working with his muse (Lawrence). This critique misses the obvious fact, that Mother! is, for the most part, Mother’s story, not Him’s. While Bardem’s character ultimately has power over Lawrence’s, it is of a god-like nature: he exists on a different level, and his morality operates on a different time scale. Him’s divine status is what shapes Bardem’s portrayal of him as a distant figure: sure he is powerful, but his power is precisely what means the story is not his, but that of his wife.

 

Mother! is an imaginative work, but is effective because it appeals to audiences on a baser level. I left the cinema mouth agape: how did it have the audacity to go in that direction, I asked myself? If gore and handheld cameras do not put you off, worry not about the pretentiousness and give Mother! a try.