Looking over the scores on our individual scores on Herditary‘s Letterboxd page, it appears I liked it the most out of the Mildly Pleased crew. Contributor Michael Sevigny gave it the lowest score of all of us and went on to say in his Midsommar entry “Ari Aster’s filmmaking is anathema to me.” Harsh, dude. Why is it that our biggest cinephile was coldest on the film, while our least film-savvy writer (me) liked it the most? I could have just asked, but let’s guess instead.
To start, context is important. I am the only one of the four of us who watched Herditary after Midsommar, which meant I got to spend hours with the madness that dominates the bulk of Ari Aster’s second film before seeing its much more restrained usage in the last 15 minutes of his first. I think that helped for two reasons: one, I was ready for exactly this sort of turn when it happened, and two, the relatively slow pace of Hereditary actually seemed fairly zippy compared to Midsommar. But most importantly, it helped highlight a strength of this movie that I think his second was missing.
Both Ari Aster movies are about an intimate group of passive people getting swept up in something equal parts tragic and horrific. But while Midsommar followed a group of shitty grad students, Hereditary is about an actual family. Toni Collette leads the pack as Annie, the mother, whose immeasurable grief is overwhelmed by her possible mental illness. It’s no wonder people were upset she was snubbed an Academy Award nomination for this performance. But Alex Wolff holds his own as Peter, the son, who he plays with more vulnerability than many of the teenage boys I’ve seen in movies. Caught in the middle of these two is Gabriel Byrne, playing Steve the dad, who is amusingly just a regular guy being taken on a very bad trip.
Finally, there’s Charlie (Milly Shapiro, in her acting debut), the movie’s resident creepy little girl. I think there’s a tendency in horror movies to go over-the-top with making things unsettling, to the point that you lose reality. You know what I mean? Spooky houses become haunted mansions that no one would ever choose to live in, weirdo neighbors become actual predators but are left alone, and creepy little girls are treated like that’s just what they’re like at that age, rather than alarming and in need of professional help. So I really appreciated that Charlie seemed disturbing, and perhaps disturbed, but not so much so that you’d think “why hasn’t her teacher contacted child protective services” or something. The relative normalcy helped keep the movie feeling unpredictable.
That’s the other thing: I did not know where Hereditary was going. I thought I did for a while, but then the movie took a hard turn and really hit me over the head with a new direction. So then I settled in for something else, only for it once again to flip the script, albeit this time in what now feels like a very Ari Aster way. Maybe another big differentiator for my viewing experience compared to the others is I watched this alone, after a Halloween party, at 2 am, downstairs in our many-windowed living room. What I mean by that is the movie made me very scared, like, better turn so more lights on scared. This movie doesn’t have jump scares, but it does have lots of creepy things hiding in the shadows and it was enough to make me as uneasy as any other film I saw this last decade.
So why did I like this more than John, Colin, and especially Michael? Is it because I knew what to expect better than they did? Is it because I like movies built around strong performances more than they do? Is it because Hereditary subverted my plot predictions better than the other’s? Is it simply because it scared me the most? I don’t really know, which feeds into that insecurity that inspired my introduction to this review: maybe I just have the most mainstream taste, so of course I like A24’s biggest hit. What a scary thought!