Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Blank mirror: "Hereditary"

Hereditary arrives on our screens trailing two things of significance: loud critical hosannas proclaiming it "the scariest film in years" - a perilously subjective index at a time when everything from the prospect of global nuclear annihilation to the sight of James Corden's face prompts mass panic - and a D+ CinemaScore grade that suggests paying audiences, even those audiences who flocked to April's A Quiet Place (a CinemaScore B+), have been a good deal less enthused. It may be the critic's job, at this late stage in the marketing campaign, to try and understand both points of view, the better to grasp the truth that surely resides somewhere between the two extremes.

Ari Aster's feature debut opens on a household that appears off-centre even before the passing of a grandmother sets everybody to making funeral arrangements. The deceased's daughter Annie (Toni Collette) is an artist who fashions scale models of scenes from her own life; she has a daughter (Milly Shapiro) who looks little shy of 106 years old, possibly as a result of the nut allergy that has swelled and distorted her features, and a stay-at-home son (Alex Wolff) who's apparently still in school despite seeming scarcely much younger than that. Their home, meanwhile, is awash with creepy signs and signifiers: part of a pentagram on a bedroom floor, a necklace that elicits gargoyle grins from pallid strangers at granny's funeral, an infernal Velux window in the treehouse standing at the foot of the family's garden. This is not a horror film with a sure feel for what is normal, humdrum, everyday, and its shaky baseline of reality immediately gives the lie to all those Exorcist comparison its PRs have been delightedly hoovering up. Every rib-nudging detail of Hereditary's first act has been designed to whisper uh-oh in the audience's ears; it would be a good deal more surprising if bad things didn't subsequently befall Aster's characters.

What my more excitable colleagues look to have been responding to is the emergence of a filmmaker making a painfully self-conscious effort to transfigure horror into something comparable to the art the Collette character deals in. A brooding sound wash and dim lighting are the first signs we're meant to take Hereditary ever so seriously, and Aster has equally availed himself of a cast capable of elevating those stretches of his material that fall between pulpy and silly. To witness Collette's monologue at the bereavement support group Annie reluctantly attends is to be aware one is in the presence of a real actor, rather than one of those makeshift dayplayers who have typically populated our B-features: rarely can a performer have strummed so much variation from two tightly pursed lips. Gabriel Byrne, in the generally underwritten part of Annie's husband Steve, does enough in his own right to sketch a man semi-stunned by the heinous misfortune assailing his family, and resolving to keep his own head down, lest something dreadful happen to him. 

That performance gestures towards some wider cosmological worldview, but over its two-plus hours, Hereditary doesn't really develop one of its own, or indeed much in the way of narrative logic. Instead, the film plays as a series of unfortunate events, separated by ellipses and evasions that struck this viewer as plain dishonest. Aster cuts directly from a car accident caused by one family member to the funeral it results in, completely eliding the awkward interfamilial conversations that would surely have broken out between the two points; some of the tensions this death provokes will emerge later in a sequence of dinner-table bawling (strangely reminiscent of American Beauty), but it's real acting in entirely the wrong place. A Quiet Place, the work of a father in his late thirties, got the effects it did partly from its informed study of the ways group dynamics change in the wake of disaster; Aster's film, conversely, is too busy shooting for doomy mood, creepy-crawly sensation, and a self-reflexivity that marks it as entirely the work of a recent film-school graduate: rooms that feel like maquettes (and vice versa), seances as setpieces, literal and cinematic graverobbing. For all its strain and pretence, it winds up holding precisely zero insight into the human condition, which would surely be a prerequisite of the art Aster is pushing so hard towards, and even on a mechanical level, Hereditary seemed pretty flimsy to me.

Aster just can't elevate the ouija boards and demonic possession business made cheap and commonplace by teen-skewed horror fare, and that weakness is compounded by what I refer to as the Paranormal Activity flaw: dunderheaded characters who refuse to move out or into a hotel once it's become flagrantly clear their home is the site of malevolent supernatural events. This is a film that requires viewers to forget about the existence of the police or mobile phones in order for its action to seem in any way credible, let alone scary; without that credulity, we're just plodding along towards a last-reel descent not into hell, but bad student-installation nonsense. An ironic closing-credits song blows what remains of Aster's cover: here is yet another posturing post-Tarantino charlatan, busy whipping up hype to hide the fact they have nothing very much to say. All movies, to some degree, are con jobs, and horror movies - leading us down blind alleys to spook us and pick our pockets - possibly more than most, but the best can sometimes trick us into seeing reflections of our true selves. I can understand how amid the excitement of the festival circuit, viewers made jittery by a combination of too much alcohol and too little sleep might proclaim Hereditary as an earthshaking experience. If I were in the business of copywriting, however, I might also label this terribly self-serious hokum "the slowest horror movie in years" and "effortfully gloomy", although I'm aware neither would sell quite as many tickets.

Hereditary opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow.

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