fIlM El­e­vated Horror

Shane Danielsen on Ari Aster’s ‘Hered­i­tary’

The Monthly (Australia) - - CON­TENTS - Shane Danielsen on Ari Aster’s ‘Hered­i­tary’

Col­lette is never less than good, but this per­for­mance must rank as a ca­reer best.

Cer­tain fears are paralysing, in­sup­port­able – be­cause they’re founded upon real-world fore­bod­ings, on out­comes ei­ther plau­si­ble or in­evitable. (My mother and fa­ther will die; my wife or sis­ter may have an ac­ci­dent, or fall ill.) And then there’s the other kind: a shiv­ery, volup­tuous ter­ror that plays on our in­ti­ma­tion of an­other world, whose ex­is­tence we might some­times sense but can never quite con­firm. The un­canny. The in­ex­pli­ca­ble. The strange, ter­ri­ble thing lurk­ing just be­yond the edge of our vi­sion. Hered­i­tary (in gen­eral re­lease June 7), the re­mark­able de­but fea­ture from Amer­i­can writer-di­rec­tor Ari Aster, be­gins in the first reg­is­ter – with the death of a par­ent – but soon shifts into the sec­ond. As the film opens, Annie Graham (Toni Col­lette) is pre­par­ing to bury her mother, who re­cently suc­cumbed to can­cer. Their re­la­tion­ship was fraught – her mother kept se­crets, har­boured grudges – and Annie’s eu­logy at the fu­neral is a model of fil­ial eva­sion. (“She was … a very dif­fi­cult woman,” Annie says, un­smil­ing. “Which maybe ex­plains me.”) Lis­ten­ing, you sense a deep cur­rent of un­re­solved pain, some­thing bit­ter and barely sup­pressed. Later, at the grave­side, she be­gins to sob un­con­trol­lably. A few days af­ter that, how­ever, dur­ing a ses­sion at a be­reave­ment-sup­port group, Annie proves rather less cir­cum­spect, launch­ing into a full-throated de­nun­ci­a­tion of the dead woman and de­tail­ing her ma­lign in­flu­ence on their fam­ily – a mono­logue so cor­ro­sive it could have been ripped from Bergman’s Cries and Whis­pers. Col­lette is never less than good, but this per­for­mance must rank as a ca­reer best. No ac­tor, I think, por­trays weari­ness bet­ter on­screen, the sense of one ex­hausted by the sim­ple bull­shit of daily life. With her flat, de­fi­ant stare, her down­turned mouth, she looks painfully aware of the ab­sur­dity of so­ci­ety in gen­eral, and fam­i­lies in par­tic­u­lar. As if she’s seen through ev­ery­thing, ev­ery cheap piety and squirm­ing equiv­o­ca­tion, and found them all equally de­spi­ca­ble. Annie, a vis­ual artist, is mar­ried to Steven (Gabriel Byrne), a psy­chi­a­trist whose own in­ner life seems not so much cir­cum­scribed as cur­dled. Like­wise their re­la­tion­ship, which is per­func­tory at best. They have a mood­ily with­drawn teenage son, Peter (Alex Wolff), and a daugh­ter, Char­lie (Milly Shapiro), a strange, soli­tary lit­tle girl, the rea­son for whose slightly re­mote, haunted air be­comes ap­par­ent when we re­alise that she haunted. As in: she sees the dead. Be­fore long, Peter will per­ceive them too. And then he’ll be­gin to ex­hibit signs of pos­ses­sion, taunt­ing his mother with un­usual venom – to which Annie re­sponds in kind, dis­may­ing hus­band and daugh­ter alike with her fe­roc­ity. A medium is called; the dead are sum­moned. And slowly the two worlds, the tem­po­ral and spec­tral, be­gin to con­verge. To go into more de­tail about the film’s plot is to risk spoil­ing its many sur­prises, which – I feel duty-bound to point out – range from the sat­is­fy­ing to the ac­tively dis­tress­ing, mo­ments which one might pre­fer to file away in a lit­tle box marked THINGS I DEARLY WISH I HAD NOT SEEN. Watch­ing Hered­i­tary is about as har­row­ing an ex­pe­ri­ence as I can re­call at the cin­ema: im­pla­ca­ble in its pac­ing, un­spar­ing in its ter­rors. The ba­sic set-up may be for­mu­laic – a haunted house, halfglimpsed ap­pari­tions, jour­nals filled with creepy draw­ings – but the ex­e­cu­tion is out­stand­ing. Aster first made his name with two well-re­garded shorts, The Strange

Thing About the John­sons and Mun­chausen, but nei­ther hinted at the unerring as­sur­ance he dis­plays here. The key word, in the brief de­scrip­tion above, is slowly. Un­like many de­but film­mak­ers, too ea­ger to im­press, Aster takes his time: pa­tiently lay­ing out the fam­ily’s his­tory, its net­work of de­cep­tions and se­crets and re­sent­ments – all the while di­alling up the ten­sion via a se­ries of well-judged, es­ca­lat­ing scares. (Though one se­quence, oc­cur­ring mid­way through the film’s first act, is guar­an­teed to test the met­tle of even hard­ened horror buffs.) He un­der­stands that a fright de­void of con­text is mean­ing­less, mere re­flex, and so takes care to in­vest the viewer in the tex­ture of the fam­ily’s daily life. The Gra­hams are com­fort­able, but not rich. Fond of each other, mostly – but also ran­corous and jaded. They could be us, we re­alise. We could be them. Direc­to­ri­ally, Aster tends to favour wide and medium shots, and some­times holds longer on a re­ac­tion than one would ex­pect (or wish). Both de­ci­sions have an endis­tanc­ing ef­fect: we feel as if we’re study­ing rather than sim­ply watch­ing the char­ac­ters, ob­serv­ing their in­ter­ac­tions from some near but hid­den van­tage. But the point of this tech­nique, this ex­per­i­ment in dis­placed sub­jec­tiv­ity, only be­comes ap­par­ent in the film’s fi­nal, rev­e­la­tory mo­ments, a coup de théâtre that clar­i­fies its pur­pose with un­set­tling ef­fect. The film boasts some su­perla­tive tech­ni­cal con­tri­bu­tions – from Pawel Po­gorzel­ski’s hyp­notic cin­e­matog­ra­phy, all in­sid­i­ous pans and un­der­lit sur­faces, to a dron­ing, atonal score cour­tesy of avant garde sax­o­phon­ist Colin Stet­son (whose New His­tory War­fare al­bums have sound­tracked much of my writ­ing for the past year). But par­tic­u­lar credit must go to pro­duc­tion de­signer Grace Yun and art di­rec­tor Richard T. Olson, for one of Hered­i­tary’s most un­der­stated but ef­fec­tive fea­tures. Annie’s art, you see, is of an un­usual type: a kind of mixed-me­dia sculp­tor, she crafts metic­u­lous, doll’s house–like repli­cas of her own do­mes­tic

spaces – as if able to fully com­pre­hend her own life only when study­ing it from the out­side. This plot de­vice not only pro­vides a mem­o­rable en­try point to the nar­ra­tive (via a bravura open­ing shot) but also car­ries over into the de­sign of the Gra­hams’ house it­self. Which is ev­erso-slightly off: the fussy, im­prac­ti­cal lay­out of fur­ni­ture, the scale of rooms to the peo­ple and ob­jects within them … it all feels sub­tly, un­nerv­ingly wrong. Like a doll’s house, in fact. And so, what would in an­other film rep­re­sent a fail­ure of de­sign be­comes in this one a key com­po­nent of its mis­sion. Which – just so we’re clear – is to scare the liv­ing day­lights out of us. I love ghost sto­ries – in par­tic­u­lar, the works of the late English writer Robert Aick­man, with their shad­owy am­bi­gu­i­ties, their weirdly un­re­solved end­ings. (“An­swers,” de­clared the au­thor loftily, “are al­most al­ways in­suf­fi­cient.”) Yet I’m not a big fan of horror movies – in part be­cause they’re usu­ally not am­bigu­ous enough, but mostly be­cause they achieve their ef­fects too cheaply. (You made us jump with that sound cue … so what? We’re an­i­mals: we re­act to loud noises.)

The bor­ders be­tween the worlds are per­me­able, the film as­sures us. Evil is real.

Far bet­ter, and more com­mend­able, is the in­ex­orable creep from the quo­tid­ian world into some­thing night­mar­ish and barely com­pre­hen­si­ble. David Lynch re­mains the ex­em­plar of the form: the fi­nal hour of Twin Peaks: The Re­turn, for ex­am­ple, ranks as one of the most dis­turb­ing things I’ve ever seen. But in re­cent years there has been a rise in what’s come to be known as the “el­e­vated horror” movie – an odd, hy­brid beast that en­com­passes films such as Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Robert Eg­gers’ The Witch, the 2014 Aus­trian drama Good­night Mommy (a film I dis­missed at the time, but which has since grown steadily in my es­ti­ma­tion) and, most re­cently, John Krasin­ski’s ex­cel­lent A Quiet Place. It’s telling, I think, that the thread link­ing all of th­ese works is their em­pha­sis upon par­ent–child re­la­tion­ships. It’s not sim­ply that we’ll typ­i­cally re­spond more to the prospect of a kid in peril; that’s too easy (and in Hered­i­tary, at least, not the point). Rather, it’s that th­ese film­mak­ers ac­knowl­edge that fam­i­lies are in­her­ently flawed sys­tems, rid­dled with emo­tional fault lines that may be ex­ploited, ei­ther from with­out (by mon­sters or phan­toms or what have you) or from within. The struc­ture will shat­ter – no doubt about it. You just have to know where to tap. Like The Babadook, Hered­i­tary is ac­tu­ally a psy­cho­log­i­cal drama of sur­pris­ing acu­ity, cloaked in the blood­ied vest­ments of a genre flick. Both films are about how in­te­rior states of mind – grief in this one, de­pres­sion in Kent’s – might man­i­fest in the phys­i­cal world; each presents a fe­male pro­tag­o­nist at the mercy of her own dark­est im­pulses. But Aster’s film goes deeper, be­com­ing in ef­fect a kind of Greek tragedy – a case study in how cer­tain houses are fated to be de­stroyed, and how de­struc­tion may be passed, like the curse of the Furies, from one gen­er­a­tion to the next. (The clue, af­ter all, is in the ti­tle.) Its ghosts are com­mu­ni­cants of chaos, trans­mit­ting dis­or­der from the dead to the liv­ing. The bor­der be­tween the worlds is per­me­able, the film as­sures us. Evil is real. A takeover is im­mi­nent. What can be done, against such forces? For Sophocles, mor­tals were des­tined to suf­fer in per­pe­tu­ity, badly over­matched as they were by fate and the gods. Given such lousy odds, his con­clu­sion was sim­ple, if some­what dis­cour­ag­ing: “Not to be born is, be­yond all es­ti­ma­tion, best.” Annie, I feel cer­tain, would con­cur.

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