(There are spoilers for the movie HEREDITARY here, you've been warned)
The low budget horror film HEREDITARY, written and directed by Ari Aster opened just last weekend and got a decidedly mixed reception: while critics highly praised the film (it rates an impressive 92% on the Tomato meter) audiences surveyed on the way out gave it a lowly D+ grade. As someone who is sick of super hero movies and loves independent movies, whenever critics and the general public disagree, I'm usually with the critics, but not this time! Putting it bluntly, I actively hated this film and almost walked out on it in the first half hour. Now understand, I not someone who can't stand horror movies, (I loved GET OUT from last year, and THE BABADOOK from 2014), no, my problem with HEREDITARY stems from one of the most difficult things to portray on a movie screen: violence against children.
Stories for children, have, of course, often featured children in dangerous situations in which they are threatened by evil adults, from THE WIZARD OF OZ to HARRY POTTER, but these stories have inevitable happy endings and are light hearted in tone despite the moments of danger. And more serious, realistic examples of children being threatened can work when handled in the right way, as in the powerful scene in SCHINDLER'S LIST in which children hide in out houses to avoid being sent to a death camp. No, what bothers me are recent films like HEREDITARY that are made for adults and that consciously seem to be pushing the audience's tolerance level by amping up the violence against children. Last year, Darren Aronofsky's fever dream film MOTHER (which I had some admiration for) ended with a baby being eaten. Another film, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, (which I also hated), showed two young children slowly wasting away from a hideous curse that eventually makes blood pour from their eyes.
That brings us to HEREDITARY, in which, in a harrowing scene, a 13 year old girl suffering from an allergic reaction, sticks her head out of a careening car window and is literally decapitated. The moment itself is over briefly, but in the aftermath, director Aster chooses to show a long, realistic, lingering shot of her severed head on the road, being eaten by ants. Why did he choose to do this? That shot has no purpose in the plot, making its repulsiveness completely unnecessary. It's a terrible choice, in my opinion, and even though it lasts a few short seconds, it casts a pall over the rest of the film. (In case you were wondering, this was the moment that almost made me walk out).
Any time a director decides to put an image like that in my head, the movie needs to justify it, and this film falls far short of that in my opinion: although it starts out like a serious family drama, HEREDITARY eventually degenerates into a standard issue ghost/possession story with the usual scenes of people having crazy nightmares, stumbling into dark spooky rooms and choosing to do things that defy logic. Sure, there are some good performances and well shot scenes, but nothing that compensates for that horrific image.
There's been a lot of praise for the performance of Toni Collette as the long suffering mom in the film, and while I think she is very good, digging into big emotional moments with a ragged intensity, it's a better performance than the film deserves. In fact, the raw emotion she brings to the dramatic parts of the film wind up seeming silly when contrasted with her character doing things like floating in the air and speaking in a possessed voice. In a serious dramatic film, her realistic performance would work perfectly, but here it just winds up seeming ridiculous.
I've already mentioned that I loved Jennifer Kent's THE BABADOOK, which was also about malevolent spirits and possession, and also had a child put in danger. But in that film, the endangered child was central to the plot, and Kent handled it effectively and tastefully. And as for the aforementioned baby eating scene in Aranofsky's MOTHER, that film had become so completely surreal and metaphorical at that point in the film, that the baby eating seemed like an inevitable part of the story. You see, it's not the threatening of children that I necessary object to, it's the context in which it is handled in the film, and I think Aster handled it terribly here. There really is no context for me that justifies seeing a young girl's severed head being eaten by ants!