With Only Sorrow to Bite On
We like to tell people there's no right way to grieve. Keep your composure, or rend at your clothes, whatever you want. Take all the time you need, or start trying to pick up the pieces right away, whichever one feels right to you. Really, though, the world would prefer it if you just grieved in private, curled up with blankets pulled over your head, where no one else can see it. Honest grief is a messy, ugly thing, in which we express all the least popular emotions--anger, self-pity, and guilt, so much guilt. Guilt for surviving. Guilt for wanting to still go on. Guilt for maybe being a little relieved that they're gone. Guilt is what powers Hereditary, one of the most viscerally human horror movies ever made, despite its third act supernatural twist.
The film opens with Annie Graham (Toni Collette) about to attend her mother's funeral. Annie is an artist, specializing in the curious medium of recreating tiny, dollhouse-sized replicas of significant moments in her life. Her mother's primary caregiver at the end of her life, Annie seems more tired than sad, and gives her a detached, chilly eulogy, describing her as "difficult" and "stubborn," words we apply to people who cause us a tremendous amount of emotional anguish, but for whom we're expected to maintain a certain level of respect (such as, say, our parents). Her mother had friends and people who loved her, but, Annie admits, she wasn't part of that world, and didn't really know her at all.
Annie herself is so deeply private that she hides from her own husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), that she's going to grief support groups. During her first meeting, she speaks less about loss, and more about coming from a family wracked with severe mental illness, including a schizophrenic brother, and a mother with disassociative identity disorder. Annie stops short of mentioning any issues she herself may struggle with, but it seems highly unlikely that a person could come climb out of that kind of faulty gene pool without something troubling them.
Her immediate family seems to be living a life permanently on eggshells, their body language unnervingly distant, like they're strangers who woke up one day stuck in the same house together, and just decided to try to make the best of it. Annie spends most of her time in her workroom, putting together a gallery show that she seems indifferent about at best. Her son, Peter, a high school student, spends much of his time smoking weed and stalking the girl he likes on Instagram, but has the wary, watchful eyes, particularly around Annie, of an injured animal. Daughter Charlie, thirteen but with the face and mannerisms of a much younger child, is off in her own little world, and seems to have inherited her grandmother's propensity for secrets. This is a family who has seen and known a lot of the sorrow people can inflict on each other, and were never taught (or refused to learn) how to process it in a safe and healthy way. They're ghosts haunting the same space.
It's kind, patient Steve who holds them together, with the strength and stability of someone who's never spent a day in his life struggling with his mental health--which is probably why Annie lies to him about how much she's struggling with hers. There is nowhere she can truly find peace--not with her family, not in her art, not even in a support group. She all but trembles with repressed emotions, her mouth set into a thin line. It looks like it physically hurts to be her. Unable to process her mother's death, she is fully unprepared for a second, far more unexpected tragedy that follows. To that, Annie can only react with an anguished, animal howl. Her grief and rage are now so enormous that they threaten to crack her home in two. No one is going to come out of this the same. Indeed, no one is going to come out of it at all.
Though Hereditary was a solid hit with critics, it rated an abominable D+ from viewers on CinemaScore. Like 2016's The Witch, they were put off by its slow burn pacing, as well as the third act reveal that much of what's happened has been orchestrated by outside malevolent forces, complaining that it essentially negates everything in the previous ninety minutes. On a surface level that may be true, but consider the idea that Annie's family already has a cracked and shaky foundation, one that leaves them vulnerable to such forces. The Grahams aren't the Freelings in Poltergeist, a strong united front whose love for each other is their most effective weapon against evil. They seem to stay together out of a lack of anywhere else to go, and unspoken hostility and resentment is all but a fifth member of the household.
When Annie is finally able to express the anger and sorrow she carries, it's to attack and maim everyone around her. In one scene, her face gruesomely contorted with fury, she tells them "I can't accept, and I can't forgive, because no one ever admits what they did." And you know what? She's right. In recovery from mental illness, there's a lot of talk of forgiveness, about accepting what can't be changed and moving on. There's less so about speaking openly about what and, more importantly, who has hurt us, and acknowledging their responsibility. To be fair, the mentally ill person him or herself rarely acknowledges the pain they cause other people. We all lash out, usually at the wrong people, and collect and cultivate our various hurts, growing them like ugly, spiny plants.
For me, it's not the violence of the ending, the images of severed heads or bodies in flames that will stick with me after watching Hereditary. It's a scene in which Annie confesses to one of her children that she never really wanted to be a mother. It's the rawest moment in a movie that, even in deceptively quiet "family at the dining room table" scenes, is always a second away from digging itself into your spine and tearing a handful of nerves away. If that scene only bothered you on a surface level, consider yourself lucky, very lucky. While the movie offers the kind of full-bodied terror that has you grasping for your viewing companion's arm, the real knots in your stomach come from the impact of words, and the familiarity of being in so much pain that the only thing that can relieve it, even for a second, is to make someone else, particularly someone who loves you, hurt even more than you do.