Sunday, June 17, 2018

Hereditary (2018)

This is a troubling but also troubled film. It will sound like a cop-out but this is an instance in which the term "mixed bag" is judiciously applied. Firstly, the tale itself: nearly as bleak as it gets, this is a film unafraid to visit some caliginous corners of the mind, heart and soul. Much has been made out of the listless, almost languid pace. First words overheard in the cinema as a couple were leaving, from the man: "I kind of liked it, I guess, but it was sooo sloooow..." Yes, this is a film willing to test the patience of a population largely only interested in instant gratification. So kudos. Likewise, while the writer-director Ari Aster does deliver some requisite-for-the-genre "jump scares," that is not what Hereditary is largely trading in; most of the film is built, as though Aster is his lead protagonist Annie--played with a commendable sense of visceral, unkempt despair by Toni Collette--and he is, as she does with so many small models of houses and strange, unnerving scenes, constructing this tale piece by piece. 

A sublimer variation of Hereditary would have correctly drawn comparisons to the Led Zeppelin classic rock skein "Stairway to Heaven," as Aster assiduously builds this cathedral to the macabre and hopelessness, working it toward a culmination that sees a twenty-minute or so stretch of the film in its third act play out in almost transcendentally discomfiting fashion. An agonizingly glacial sequence in which a character wanders about a possibly empty house after awaking, migrating from one pitilessly black room to another, is a genuine showstopper of earned existential horror, and, for a little while, the casual, matter-of-fact revelation of a chilling actuality that catapults the motion picture into its denouement--a swath of the film, which, it must be said, is far less convincing--is one of the most simply, consummately realized pieces of horror filmmaking this century. Let it be said that when Hereditary hits its peaks, it grazes against unconditional greatness. 

Unfortunately, the film is, for all of its ubiquity of the same general mood of unrelenting despair and misery, rather surprisingly uneven. One third act twist is almost laughably telegraphed from the moment a particularly helpful character showed up. Consequently the sense of shock Aster was doubtless going for is a gigantic, wheezing misfire. Moreover, though the film is largely impeccably cast--Collette is terrific, Gabriel Byrne, playing a passive husband and father, nevertheless displays exquisite artistry in how he simply listens to other thespians speaking through their characters--some characters have such a minimum of agency and the screenplay is so repetitive in making Hereditary a bruised and blistering saga of familial heartache and trauma, that the process of crawling over the broken glass Aster has sprinkled about for the audience to traverse over is not particularly rewarding from either a rote, narrative perspective or from the macro-thematic vantage point. It is here where the film stumbles most thoroughly, falling well short of films such as Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist, horror epics representing a sort of unabashed flexing of genre muscles while deftly, deeply surveying a litany of sociological, religious, familial and perhaps fleetingly even political considerations. Hereditary, were it a dish, would be cooked turkey with turkey dressing, served after the completion of a set of cold-cut turkey hors d'ouevre. While the film's quality waxes and wanes like the mountains serving as foreboding background to a critical funeral about a third of the way through, Aster is, to a fault, as it turns out, committed to the same dismal tone, visual gloominess, disorienting close-ups of faces as though this were an early and unembarrassed Steven Spielberg-, Brian De Palma- or John Carpenter-authored late '70s, early '80s fright-fest by way of an especially claustrophobic Ingmar Bergman chamber piece such as Cries and Whispers. It's all of one taste, even when the picture takes a misstep and loses its way, either by endeavoring to downright shock and disturb--one grisly close-up is admittedly almost unshakable as visual touchstone--or by having a lack of more fluid characterization, which comes to harm it as Hereditary attempts to raise the stakes, even when it does, however briefly, succeed in becoming a legitimately scary film. 

As one who adores Roman Polanski's horror films such as Repulsion and The Tenant, this film's slow-burn approach generally works best. However, it is the sameness of the film--until things truly spiral out of control once and for all--that is wearing audiences down and compelling any to complain about the film's running time, not the picture's length, not in the era where most Marvel movies are well over two hours.

From the beheading of a bird that recalls Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon to a sequence involving fire that was more arresting as part of the film's trailer than it is as part of the actual film, Aster's Hereditary, in simultaneously extending its reach and being dreadfully deterministic about it, finds too many pitfalls to altogether work, ironically succumbing to the very genre trappings the film seems to want to keep at proverbial arm's length. The conclusion in particular strikes one as distinctly familiar territory for this sort of film, and the mechanics of the contrivances and possible conspiracy, leading toward the inevitable horizon line remain, in unison, both distinctly predictable--especially when brought to the fore in the personage of that aforementioned helpful character--and almost obtusely impenetrable. While the film's dark despair feels like genuine heartache and self-examination by Aster, the mounting of paranormal ornamentation is at its best when it obscured, behind creaking walls or hovering over a teenager's bed, abstract and only defined so much as it must be the approximation of entering hell for a parent to lose a child. Conversely it is at its worst when Aster attempts to shoehorn the investigative tropes of, say, The Conjuring, spoon-feeding the audience in the final minutes when for the better part of two intentionally painful hours he had kept said audience on a strict diet of spartan rations. That's a considerable problem for Hereditary, which only moments beforehand seemed to be on to something unmistakable and terrifyingly true, not just of ghosts or demons or entities, or other supernatural entities... But the more bluntly and perhaps importantly how vital it is that families do not fall apart just when seemingly everything in heaven, hell and earth want them broken up and perhaps sold as spare parts. 

First Reformed (2018)

The film features a multitudinous array of parallels with Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light. This is one of Paul Schrader's mountains, and feels like a summation to his art. The aspect ratio, the stinging, biting cinematographic unease conjured by the picture's stark cinematography, Ethan Hawke's sensational, mesmerizing performance.. Everything First Reform presents haunts, bewitches, chills. This effort is latter day Schrader's mightiest swing for the fences. Achingly well-written with empathy for all characters but next to no reachable solace for any, the film is about how people address the gaping gulf, the merciless, vexing void which exists in their lives and must be addressed. Hawke's pastor eloquently contending that wisdom rests in comprehending the duality of hope and despair and accepting that paradigm is as lucid as it is captivating. 

Channeling Robert Bresson yet again, as he did so many times before in his career, most pointedly with the endings to both American Gigolo (where the appropriation admittedly failed for the most part) and Light Sleeper (where it worked perfectly), borrowing from the final visual and audial note of Bresson's Pickpocket each time, here Schrader adopts and adapts a loose rearranging of the set-up and protagonist from Diary of a Country Priest. Here, much as with Bresson's 1951 drama, Schrader doggedly follows the internal battle within the "country priest" or pastor as he passionately posits that in a world atomized beyond the point of pervasive loneliness, the act of loving someone or nurturing one's own troubled faith or finding solace in expansive political causes, even when adopting deeply flawed methods, find in their common root the bitter, suffocating void.