Why are you afraid of me?
If anyone has the ability to dive into the deepest, darkest secrets of an otherwise normal looking suburban family, it’s the writer/director of The Strange Thing About the Johnsons. It’s been seven years since Ari Aster‘s viral short film about incest and sexual abuse came out and yet his first feature is just hitting theaters. Whether due to a lack of funding or need for time to hone his script, Aster spent the period in-between by crafting more shorts to cut his teeth and prepare to unleash what’s become one of the most talked about films of the year. Hereditary doesn’t just look at monsters hiding in plain sight, however. He’s brought in a world of the occult to reveal how things are never quite what they seem.
And that goes double for audiences since this meticulously constructed slow burn of familial strife is both a highlight of our current golden era of art house horror and the perfect subversion of it. Critics and fans alike have enjoyed this recent spate of genre work for its hidden psychological meanings and social commentary, breathing metaphor into every little detail as a way to legitimize a part of cinema long since dismissed. But while Hereditary embraces such interpretations thanks to its subject matter dripping with grief, it truly works best as a bona fide supernatural horror with witches craving a covenant with evil. Aster doesn’t work backwards from his endgame to hide it under a veil, though. He simply lays it out so we shroud it under our trendy preconceptions.
We’re so desperate to “solve” that we refuse to take things at face value until hindsight opens our eyes to the way we willingly blind ourselves from the truth. We listen to what’s happening and watch it unfold, telling ourselves that Toni Collette‘s matriarch Annie has lost her grip on reality in the aftermath of tragedy. With a history of mental illness and a complicated emotional response system to death, it’s easier to label what we see as the manifestations of nightmares than reality. Much like The Witch with its so-called allusions to nefarious deeds in the woods distracting us from what we believed to be impossible flights of fancy as told by impressionable children, we see through a charade without yet knowing if it is a charade.
Annie feeds us this artifice because she believes in it. She had a tumultuous relationship with her mother—one that forced her to keep the woman away from her son Peter (Alex Wolff) until it could no longer be helped. Once Annie’s mom’s Dissociative identity disorder evolved into dementia during later years, she let her back in for no other reason than the need to open her home. Her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) would therefore have the means to grow closer until old frictions led to Annie’s husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) enacting a zero contact rule. We don’t know how long it was since Annie talked to her mother before the latter’s death, only the absence of tears shed. Maybe things could finally find normalcy without her presence.
Or perhaps this event is instead a catalyst that returns Annie’s sleepwalking terrors and allows whatever genetic predisposition ravaged her family to put its claws into the next generation too. It’s this murky area where Aster leaves us to either accept what occurs or treat it as a coping mechanism. We start seeing unnatural phenomena like circles of light pulsating through a room and wonder if it’s merely a glare augmented by increased tensions and anxiety. We find ourselves catching a glimpse of a strange ornate symbol Annie’s mother wore around her neck in the coffin on different surfaces throughout the environment onscreen and wonder if it’s Aster who is playing with us or some unknown character playing with them. And then all hell breaks loose.
This shift between waking life and dream permeates every scene as guilt, anger, and pain strip away their ability to practice self-control. We learn secrets Annie bottled up about motherhood, witness Steve’s calming effect on her to prevent her falling prey to the demons that tortured her mother, and scratch our heads trying to decipher meaning from the tiny autobiographical models she constructs for her latest art show less than seven months away. Aster prepares us for potential tragedy by introducing vices (Peter with marijuana and Charlie with chocolate) and weaknesses (Peter with a girl he likes and Charlie with a nut allergy). He draws a mother doing everything she can to escape the shadow of her own while fate pushes her closer to the destiny she fears.
Things grow ever bleaker in the process with more anguish and hope-turned-despair courtesy of Annie’s new friend (Ann Dowd‘s Joan) who suffers from the same numbness. Our eyes and ears become trained to pick up on where Aster lingers just long enough to register recognition as well as see the beautifully orchestrated instant visual toggle from day to night as the true metaphor between light and dark within Annie’s mind. We’re made to wonder about her duplicity, gradually mistrusting her judgment (with good reason) like those she loves. But more and more it appears outside forces control her as a conduit and/or vessel like the rest. Is she the villain here or another victim within a plan so elaborate that our minds glaze right over its blatant intent?
Our uncertainty to the answer lies in top-notch performances by all involved. Byrne, Shapiro, and Dowd can be overlooked due to their smaller roles, but their precision is not to be underestimated. And while most of the awards talk surrounds the ever under-appreciated Collette for her harrowingly bi-polar depiction of viciousness matched by vulnerability, Wolff is the real surprise. He goes toe-to-toe with a powerhouse here—his dumbstruck shame matched with a solitary tear the perfect foil to Collette’s impulsively ferocious barbs met with prompt remorse. She is so unpredictable that his fear may in fact have been real. Her rage so potent and unbridled that her acknowledgement of just how bad things have become and her selfless desire to fix it only makes her volatility more frightening.
There’s so much happening that it’s difficult to talk too much without full-on spoilers. Just know that the two-hour-plus runtime is airtight. I’ve heard Aster has a three-hour cut floating around, but I can’t see how it could improve upon this pared down revelation of long sought clarity for a family mired with personal (and real) demons. The length is necessary to chip away at their resolve, to prove to Annie that something powerful is pulling strings she didn’t know existed. Love is all that keeps her safe. It saved her from evil’s grip in the past and shielded its true prize from view. The more death arises, however, the more lost one becomes. It only takes a second’s pause to let a waning light be extinguished forever.
 Milly Shapiro and Toni Collette Photo courtesy of A24
 Alex Wolff Photo courtesy of A24
 Toni Collette and Ann Dowd Photo by Reid Chavis, courtesy of A24