In Ari Aster’s 2018 horror film Hereditary, we are treated to what seems to be a technologized retelling of a myth in Ovid. There’s a reason why I recall Ovid here. Ovid’s Metamorphoses was written in a lighthearted, almost sarcastic tone. The tone of the text was surely common in the historical context of the writer, who lived in an age when the foundation myths of Rome were regularly held up to ridicule, by people who had enjoyed far too easy lives, thanks to the hard work of the founders who took those myths seriously. Thus was the author able to record Rome’s foundation myths for posterity, all while he was in no danger of being thought unfashionable or ridiculous.
For better and for worse, this is how a serious man has to discuss the timeless truths of patriarchy. Whether that man draws from Roman or Hebrew sources, he had better mask them as some sort of modern, mechanized horror story. Otherwise his message won’t play in the ten-dollar cinema.
Like one of the stories in Metamorphoses, this film functions as a cautionary tale about the matriarchy. It is set in Utah, which I immediately found humorous. The filmmaker is not a Mormon from Utah. He’s a Jew from New York City. The similarities between these two American subcultures — both ideally monotheistic, collectivist, moral and patriarchal, and both currently succumbing to the rot which is American feminism — lead me to suspect that the film is part autobiography, part social criticism, set in a location simultaneously distinct and similar. While I’m sure that he wouldn’t admit it in print, I suspect Aster would find much of the material on our blog interesting, and he’d likely resonate with more than a little of it. I may go into more detail when I review his later film, Midsommar. Until then, I’ll just award Brother Ari honorary citizenship here, and get to a brief review of what I consider his best work so far.
The film opens with an obituary, and its first scene is a funeral for the recently dead. Ellen Taper Leigh is shortly revealed to have been a loud-and-proud, empowered feminist wimminz, and we learn that her life was as pathetic as is typical of the sufferers of that neurosis. Mizz Ellen abandoned her family to pursue occultnik religious nonsense, was hated by her children and grandchildren, and died alone. At the packed funeral, we find her estranged kids shocked that anyone else showed up at all. It will shortly be revealed that Mizz Leigh’s friends are her co-confederates in a bizarre, matriarchal religious cult, who are bent upon inflicting unspeakable cruelties on her kin. This makes Mizz Leigh something of a cognate of Faust. Like him, our feminist heroine makes her deal with the devil. Unlike Goethe’s protagonist, she doesn’t deal with the consequences. She’s a typical feminist who skips out, and leaves her descendants to pay the bill.
The youngest girl, Charlie (played flawlessly by Milly Shapiro) notes in passing that she “should have been a boy.” This weirdness is, no doubt, thanks to her upbringing. Charlie is the only family member who has had contact with granny, and it rapidly becomes clear that she is not the better for it. She is presented to the viewer as a deeply troubled child, with tics and hangups that would immediately clue an observer in to the fact that she was raised by a disgusting feminist dyke.
Charlie’s brother, Peter (played by Alex Wolff) lies to his self-involved parents, telling them he’s going to a school function. He is ordered to take Charlie with him. Like the typical rootless young brother, he leaves his little sister alone with irresponsible schoolmates and wanders off to indulge in illicit drugs and sex with the high school hoez. This has the effect of bringing forth a series of tragic events, the sum of which Charlie does not survive.
Annie Graham, daughter of dead Mizz Leigh, mother of Peter and dead Charlie, will thus begin to doubly resent her son, who is saddled with a lifetime of guilt at the age of sixteen. Annie is married to Steve, a physician (played by Gabriel Byrne) who has given his emotionally absent wife everything a husband is expected to dole out: money, a fine home, the ability to stay home and concentrate on a failed career in art, and even a nu-male devotion to childrearing and housework. Annie is still not happy. Not to worry, though. Annie is about to make a new friend, named Joan. Joan is one of the town’s feminist harpies, and Joan will give Annie all the detailed instructions about how to achieve liberation, in the style of granny herself.
As Uncle Tony would remind us: The first duty of a capitalist ideology (like feminism) is to reproduce itself across time. The reproduction of feminism is accomplished by painting all of its abuses and cruel excesses as normal, and proposing all of its vile values and corrupted norms as “just the way things are.” This has the effect of making granny’s dysfunction more than the unfortunate consequence of a lifetime of bad choices. It is truly hereditary, and it remains an ongoing process, that threatens us all.