Watching Herditary is like listening to someone vividly describe a dream. While there are parts that are terrifying, confusing and burned into your memory, the meaning can only really be understood by the person having the dream.
Toni Collette plays Annie, an artist specializing in miniatures, and the movie opens with the camera zooming in on one of the model houses in her workspace, which then becomes the main house itself when her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) walks in. Annie is grieving the recent loss of her mother and it becomes clear there were some issues and tensions in their relationship.
Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro play their children, Peter and Charlie. Charlie is an unforgettably strange and unsettling character. In fact, strange and unsettling sums up the first act of the movie, which establishes no conflict. The movie’s slow pace in finally picking up threads of a plot is far removed from the typical jump scare slashers that are today’s typical horror movies.
An unexpected tragedy, which has one of the more gruesome shots of any movie in recent memory, moves the story along. The movie has several twists and unexpected moments, so I won’t spoil them by describing the events any further. But Hereditary is what you’d get if The Babadook and Rosemary’s Baby had a, uh, baby.
While the movie is often slow and baffling, Toni Collette holds it all together. When she has a pained, terrified expression on her face, we are pained and terrified because she is an excellent actress. Cast someone less talented in this role, and this movie could have been boring at best or silly at worst.
Normally, when there is a logical leap in a movie, a lack of explanation for how or why something happens, we can safely call it a plot hole. In most movies, the connections between scenes and characters are clear enough that events make sense and characters’ motivations are clear, building a coherent story. Horror movies are a noted exception. Too often, mysterious things are left unexplained, likely with the hope that the audience will just assume something evil and supernatural must account for it. Sometimes this works, but most often, it’s cheating.
The ending of Hereditary is nonsensical. I have since read an interview with writer/director Ari Aster where he gives an explanation. It’s clear he had a thorough vision for what he wanted to present and he may even have been successful in presenting it. But it is impossible to watch the movie without such an explanation and understand the ending, and how that affects the meaning of the rest of the movie.
There are small details throughout the movie that only in retrospect support the larger explanation, but they actually serve no purpose in the plot when they appear. Details such as the phrases that appear on the wall only exist so they can be pointed to as proof that something coherent had been happening all along.
It’s not the sort of movie that you could go back, view again, and get all the clues that explain the ending. Aster may have a clear idea of what it all means, but you would never understand the meaning of his vivid dream of a movie without his explanation. Some will find this incomprehensibility mind-blowing. Others, like me, will wish it weren’t quite so incomprehensible.