Something hereditary is passed down to posterity, all without their foreknowledge or approval; an unborn child has no say in what color eyes it will have, what its allergies may be, or what its baseline personality or predispositions will be. This inevitability may be why the family unit is such ripe terrain for the horror genre; the supernatural “evil” in a family’s history often insidiously infects the innocents of the present in many a horror story, Hereditary being no exception. Aster embraces the paranormal in his debut; that is, his characters are not delusional (although it takes some time to be sure: yet another echo of Rosemary’s Baby), and the devilish conspiracies in which they find themselves embroiled are all too real.
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The first, stunning shot of Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) unfolds like a Russian nesting doll of alternate realities. We begin with a view through a window, looking out upon a treehouse; in an ominous touch of foreshadowing, a fly flicks against the windowpane. The camera then pans right, revealing the artist’s workshop of Annie (Toni Collette), before resting in front of a large and imposing dollhouse. The camera slowly zooms into the dollhouse until one of its bedrooms encompasses the entire frame. Then, the father of the house, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), unexpectedly walks through the miniature bedroom door to wake his son, Peter (Alex Wolff), and ask him if he has seen his sister, Charlie (Milly Shapiro). As it turns out, the latter is sleeping in the treehouse, a detail that tidily brings the opening sequence full circle.
On a superficial level, the shot concisely introduces the viewer to the members of a particularly dysfunctional family. It establishes Annie as the eccentric artist, Steve as the soft-spoken voice of reason, Peter as the somewhat airheaded and angsty teenager, and Charlie (through her non-presence) as the mysterious loner. What all of these characters have in common, however, is their seeming ambivalence toward the recent death of Annie’s manipulative and controlling mother. We are also provided with an overview of the story’s two primary settings: the family home and the treehouse.
More importantly, Aster forces his audience to question the nature of his story’s reality within mere seconds: the treehouse (itself an artificial, microcosmic house) transitions to the fake dollhouse, which in turn seamlessly morphs back into the “real world.” It’s a neat trick that any genre filmmaker would surely envy. However, this opening shot is not just a stylistic flourish (although it certainly is that, too). It also holds one of the keys to understanding the story’s unsettling narrative structure and comments, I believe, on the nature of film itself and its relation to a deterministic worldview.
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In her essay “Chris Marker: Memory’s Apostle,” Catherine Lupton dissects the paradox underlying the still-photographic method in the ever-influential La Jetée (1963): “The use of still photographs distills the essence of cinema’s appeal and its impossibility: the desire to fix that which is forever in motion.… the willful suspension of disbelief that will create the illusion of reality from a projected stream of immobile representations” (The Criterion Collection). Lupton claims that cinema is illusory in that it is not reality but, quite literally, a rapidly-moving succession of independent images.
Physicist Brian Greene similarly envisions time not as a flowing river but as a frozen river, an apt metaphor for a literal filmstrip: “[E]ach moment in spacetime – each time slice – is like one of the still frames in a film” (140). A film appears to be moving on the screen, but the thousands of individual shots comprising it are forever frozen in the same, discrete places. Any moviegoer intuitively knows that the “future” of a film, while unknown to them upon first viewing, already exists: that some crew is not scrambling to finish what the audience has not yet seen. This hermetically sealed, unalterable reality may or may not be true in the real world, but it is certainly true in the world of Hereditary and in the very nature of moviegoing itself. Just as the film canister contains an entire “world” before it even enters the projector, its characters’ fates are sealed before they (or we) are even remotely aware of it.
Film’s inherent artificiality is a key theme to Hereditary’s aforementioned first shot. Like Hamlet’s play within a play or Bergman’s footage of himself directing in Persona (1966), it is a blunt reminder that what we are watching is completely and utterly fake: the sets and actors are Aster’s model houses and dolls, one may say. As if to emphasize this point, most of the major characters are given miniaturized, uncanny counterparts, as created by Annie. These figurines are displayed in model rooms of the house, their configurations echoing earlier scenes and sometimes anticipating later developments. Furthermore, Annie’s miniatures fill her family’s abode; a pillar next to the main staircase is made from stacked model homes, suggesting that these delicate, tiny artworks are part of the house’s very structure.
This artificiality is reinforced through Pawel Pogorzelski’s unsettling, borderline surreal cinematography. Establishing shots of “exteriors” are often conspicuously model replicas. By pairing these images with natural sounds (wind, squawking birds), however, Aster and Pogorzelski make the viewer doubt what he or she is actually seeing. Interior shots feel similarly off-kilter and are often framed so that the camera encompasses a room’s entire fourth wall, as if the audience is peering into an exposed dollhouse room.
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But how does this meta-commentary connect to determinism? Galen Strawson defines the philosophical concept in “Luck Swallows Everything” thusly: “The view that everything that happens in the universe is necessitated by what has already gone before, in such a way that nothing can ever happen otherwise than it does” (93). Although Strawson endorses what may be called a limited compatibilist outlook (essentially, we do have freedom of choice in day-to-day situations, but these decisions are guided by predetermined factors that are ultimately out of our control: e.g., cultural upbringing, genetic makeup, etc.), he does raise the argument that “There is a sense in which we human beings can’t experience our choices as determined, even if determinism is true” (107). Humans, in other words, are incapable of comprehending the frozen river of time and are stuck experiencing its false flow, to borrow Greene’s terminology.
Aster even offers a quick primer on fate versus free will when Peter’s English class discusses Greek tragedies. One of his classmates rather clumsily argues that it is more tragic if a character cannot escape their fate, especially if the “signs” anticipating their doom go unnoticed. The writer-director seems to agree; his recurring crown imagery and claustrophobic settings (most scenes take place indoors) create a theatrical atmosphere that summons comparisons to the inexorable tragedies of ancient drama. Sophocles’ Oedipus the King is especially applicable, given its shared preoccupations with both the human mind and physical head.
The dollhouse image similarly conveys a sense of inevitability. The characters go about trying to alter the course of their projected fates, but to no avail; their ultimate destinations are set, their movements as restricted as their toy counterparts. I will not reveal any of the specific plot machinations, but the ending implies that every seemingly unexpected occurrence or twist had in fact been strategically planned out far before any of the film’s events actually transpired. It is telling that the tableau on display in the finale briefly morphs into a duplicate miniature before the end credits, reversing the first shot’s sequence; this ending has always existed, carefully arranged in its shoebox-like setting, just waiting for its moment of revelation.1
The film’s deterministic outlook is apparent in its very title. After all, something hereditary is passed down to posterity, all without their foreknowledge or approval; an unborn child has no say in what color eyes it will have, what its allergies may be, or what its baseline personality or predispositions will be. This inevitability may be why the family unit is such ripe terrain for the horror genre; the supernatural “evil” in a family’s history often insidiously infects the innocents of the present in many a horror story, Hereditary being no exception. Aster embraces the paranormal in his debut; that is, his characters are not delusional (although it takes some time to be sure: yet another echo of Rosemary’s Baby), and the devilish conspiracies in which they find themselves embroiled are all too real. Therefore, when Annie criticizes her family’s failure to accept responsibility for their horrific actions, the film’s overarching design and outlook beg the disturbing question: How could they?
Greene, Brian. The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality. New York: Random House, 2004.
Lupton, Catherine. “Chris Marker: Memory’s Apostle.” The Criterion Collection, 8 Feb. 2012, criterion.com/current/posts/498-chris-marker-memory-s-apostle. Accessed 20 June 2018.
Strawson, Galen. “Luck Swallows Everything.” Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, the Self, Etc., edited by Galen Strawson, The New York Review of Books, 2018, pp. 92-109.
- This fatalistic outlook is one of Aster’s many nods to Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The latter’s American debut also revealed minor occurrences as meticulously plotted pieces of a vast conspiracy (poor Hutch’s missing glove and the absent picture frames come to mind). Aster similarly fetishizes obscure, leather-bound texts of the occult (a mysterious book of spells echoes All of Them Witches) and other totemic objects; Annie’s necklace of her family crest, for example, is a clever riff on Rosemary’s tannis root necklace. Although its allusions abound, Hereditary feels remarkably singular. While Polanski’s film is bathed in sunlight and splashy, ’60s-era colors, Aster’s focuses on blue and brown color schemes; the former is full of tongue-in-cheek, dry wit, whereas the latter is largely humorless (although some high-school stoner hijinks are thrown in for good measure). Nevertheless, both tales pull off the remarkable feat of somehow twisting bleak denouements into optimistic celebrations. Like the best genre filmmakers, Aster makes the most common plot elements feel fresh again. [↩]