Hereditary / Directed by Ari Aster
An almost-shaking camera follows Angela Bullock’s Mrs. Johnson through her son’s wedding party, capturing her as she desperately tries to ignore everyone speaking to her while she searches for her son. Today— today might finally be the day the family curse is broken! Unfortunately, Ari Aster’s direction and longtime collaborator Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography tell us otherwise.
I remember this scene from The Strange Thing About the Johnsons as the first time I got a glimpse of Ari Aster’s singular talent for cognitively dissonant filmmaking. At first the scene seems poorly, or at least strangely, acted, then surreal, then as the circumstances reveal themselves: painfully realistic.
With the release of Hereditary, many audiences are discovering Aster for the first time, while others are noticing a newfound maturity in his filmmaking, pushing the saccharine surreality of shorts like Johnsons and Munchausen aside in order to explore a more traditional horror territory: grief. Instead of Toy Story production design and Scorsese to-the-camera monologues, there are grief counseling meetings, impending deadlines, and the sound of forks clinking against plates occupying the silence at the seemingly loveless dinner table.
The family members sitting around that dinner table are so at odds with one another, devoid of any physical or verbal affection, that it is obvious they truly love each other. Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, and Milly Shapiro are the Grahams, who sit in an awkward place following the death of Annie’s (Collette) estranged mother. She is not estranged in a traditional way, rather the relationship she had with her daughter was a boiling kettle of constant abuse and confusion. Nearly always in close proximity, a contemporary psychological estrangement. The ghost of Annie’s mother and brother’s mental illness sits in every frame of this film, particularly the first third, largely ignored by Annie outside of the grief counseling sessions.
This dissonance between psychological and sociological privilege is what makes up the strongest threads in the film. Annie and Steve (Byrne) live in a house that looks like Fallingwater and their children, (or, rather, Wolff’s Peter, who is forced to bring Charlie [Shapiro]), party in L.A. mansions that Lindsey Lohan would be proud to hang out in. Annie’s relationship with her mother allows her to create meaningful art, whereas those less fortunate would be left without her cultural capital and prestige. Even the first twist in the film, edited by Jennifer Lane and Lucian Johnston as if it were the roller coaster you are too afraid to ride, is made all the more impactful by the realization that someone who was not so well-off would not have gotten into this same mess. This is Hereditary at its best. Though the more supernatural set pieces are undeniably entertaining, on first viewing these ultra-realistic moments are more clearly imprinted by the hand of someone with an individual style and a deep commitment to investigating privilege itself.
C’est La Vie, Munchausen, Basically and the bulk of Hereditary are Aster’s quartet of crazy white people movies. Munchausen follows a white mother who is haunted by the idea of her perfect dorky white son going to college. C’est La Vie follows a homeless white man’s rambles until they evolve into a more obviously sophisticated analysis of what it means to dream and be ignored by everyone around you. Basically is about a beautiful white actress in L.A. that is willing to say anything to sound smart. Though race and class may not read as obvious parts of the films themselves, when you view them in context of his whole filmography, including Beau and The Strange Thing About the Johnsons (both starring a wonderful Billy Mayo) it becomes clearer. In Beau, Aster observes Mayo’s Beau as he is driven into a paranoid (but notably less violent than his white Aster peers) fit of isolation by his rude neighbors. If you have read this far and do not know what a Strange Thing About the Johnsons is about, I thank you, suggest you watch it, and read what Aster has said about race in the film.
The dioramas, the seances, and that long closeup make it obvious to me that Aster is obsessed with what I call the white nightmare: finally reaching for your privilege in an explicit way after a major loss, only to lose even more, and then somehow still become King.