Critical Analysis, Movie Analysis

Choices Make the Man: An interpretation of Ari Aster’s “Hereditary”


Photo by Jake Blucker on Unsplash

Ari Aster’s Hereditary is easily the best horror movie I’ve seen since Get Out, and it’s currently at the top of my favorites list. It’s an examination of mental illness, frayed family dynamics, grief, and the horrifying side of genetics. There’s a ton to unpack in this film. So much that it almost feels like two separate movies. The first is a story of an ordinary family faced by two deaths, one that was expected but still potent, and one sudden, gut-wrenchingly tragic loss that shatters our lead protagonist, Annie Graham, and threatens to destroy her few remaining relationships. The second half of the film, however, is an all-out sprint into nightmarish madness that takes all the ugliness of Annie’s feelings of grief, fear, and confusion and personifies them, makes them tangible. By the end, many viewers were left going, “Whoa! Huh? What just happened?” But the truly interesting question is, “What does it mean?”

By the end of the film, the focus has switched from Annie to her son Peter … and the demon that now dwells inside him. The final frames of the story are the most disturbing, though not necessarily the most frightening (I’d give that crown to the scene where Peter can’t bring himself look in the rear-view mirror). You feel loss at the fates of the Graham family. You wonder if Peter is now lost, too. You wonder if evil has won. You wonder if it all even mattered. You lament the fates of this poor, poor family. You question why you even watched this film. Most importantly, you are left wondering if this ending has any hope or whether you’ve just watched two hours and seven minutes of pure depression. Well, to figure that out, the real question you need to answer is, “Does Peter have a choice?”

Why is this question of choice so important? Well, because the director told us so, in his script. There are multiple scenes that take place in classrooms. We see Charlie Graham in her classroom, but the focus is on the moment when the pigeon strikes the window. We see Peter in class near the end of the film, in that creepy scene from the trailer where Peter’s own reflection grins back at him just before something tries to enter his body and slams his face into his desk. Again, in that scene the focus is on an act of violence. The teachers’ words are irrelevant. But the first time we see Peter in class, it’s different, signalling us to pay attention, even if Peter isn’t. While Peter stares at the girl in front of him and texts his friends under the desk, his teacher is asking the class questions about a play.

The teacher asks, “So, if we go by the rule that the hero is undone by his fatal flaw, what is Heracles’ flaw?” The girl Peter is checking out says, “Arrogance.” When asked why, she says because Heracles refuses to see all the signs that are “being literally handed to him the entire play.” To which the teacher responds, “Interesting. So he thinks he has control. But let’s all remember, Sophocles wrote the Oracle so that it was unconditional, meaning that Heracles never had any choice, right? So does that make it more tragic or less tragic than if he has a choice?”

One boy says less, but can’t say why. Peter is not paying attention at all. He’s not listening to the sign being handed to him. When the teacher calls on him to answer the question, he has no clue what they’re talking about. Another girl chimes in and says, “I think it’s more tragic because, if it’s all just inevitable, then that means that the characters had no hope. They never had hope because they’re all just, like, hopeless … They’re all like pawns in this horrible, hopeless machine.” And therein lies the core of the film, hidden quit literally in a lesson. A lesson Peter ignores. He is oblivious and, one could argue, arrogant. So, does that make him like Heracles, without a choice and without hope? Your answer to that question determines how you interpret the ending.

It also ties deeply into the theme of mental illness that permeates the entire film. When you are suffering from a mental illness, you can feel entirely at it’s mercy. Your own thoughts and feelings seem out of your control. It’s likely you have inherited your condition, through no fault of your own. It’s hereditary, and you can’t control it, right? Well, at least not without professional help, in many cases. This lack of control can create a deep, overwhelming sense of hopelessness. Are all your actions dictated by your illness? Is your personality distinguishable from it? Or is it who you are; does it define you? Do you have hope, or are you like Heracles, at the mercy of a power greater than yourself?

So what does the film think are the answers to those tough questions?

Let’s examine the plot to find out.

Annie Graham’s past is littered with tragedy, trauma, and hereditary mental illness. Her father died when she was a baby. He starved himself due to psychotic depression. “And then there’s my brother,” she tells the grief support group with a look that says she’s biting a giant bullet here. Her older brother had schizophrenia. At 16, he hanged himself in their mother’s bedroom, and his note blamed their mother, Ellen, saying she was putting people inside of him. It is clear by the end of the movie that Annie’s brother was not schizophrenic; he had uncovered Ellen’s plot to allow Paiman to overtake his body. It’s possible granny Graham actually killed her husband, too. But that is just the plot dressing to weave a dramatic tale around the underlying theme of mental illness.

Still, Annie’s brother’s fate is vitally important to unraveling the ending. He made a choice. He took control of his fate. It wasn’t a happy ending, but he made a stand. Is Peter capable of doing the same? Based on the brother’s story, revealed early in the film, it appears that Peter can prevent his own possession if he makes a conscious choice. But we know he doesn’t. He is possessed by Paiman in the end. Has he lost his chance to make a stand?

To answer that, we need to decide whether Charlie Graham, the daughter, is her own independent person outside of Paiman, who obviously resides inside her, or whether she is Paiman through and through.

Again, we must turn to Annie’s grief therapy session. Once she starts talking, all of the thoughts she’s locked up inside come spilling out in a rush, looking at the floor instead of the increasingly aghast stares of those around her. As she delves deeper into her history with her mother, she talks about the times they were estranged.

She says, “I didn’t let her anywhere near me when I had my first, my son, which is why I gave her my daughter, who she immediately stabbed her hooks into.”

Well, Ellen did more than stab metaphorical hooks into an innocent baby. It’s quite obvious by the end of the film that Paimon was placed inside Charlie’s body at birth, which is why the grandmother took so much interest in Charlie, even going so far as to breastfeed her (euck!). After having two children of her own and failing to provide a proper host for Paiman, then being denied access to her grandson, the deranged matriarch had to settle for a female host to allow Paiman into the world. She planned to rectify things later.

In an interview with Variety, Aster was asked whether Charlie was Paiman the whole time. His response?


From the moment she’s born. I mean, there’s a girl that was displaced, but she was displaced from the very beginning.

But what does “displaced” mean? Sure, Paiman is absolutely the lead personality in Charlie’s body, but in most possession stories, the host is still inside somewhere, overrun and defeated, but not entirely gone.

When Annie performs the summoning ritual shown to her by the secret cult member, Joan, Charlie/Paiman is summoned into Annie’s body. But rather than triumph, the voice that comes out of Annie’s mouth displays true fear.

“Mom?!” she cries in a child’s voice. “What’s happening?” Shouldn’t Paiman know what’s happening? “Why is everyone scared?” she continues. “Why are you scaring me?!” If Charlie is Paiman and Paiman alone, why this terror? Why this call for her mother? Well, it could be that Charlie still lives inside her own body alongside Paiman, who takes over when he needs to. However, there’s a second possibility. Maybe Paiman doesn’t know who he is.

Seems odd that a god would not know who he is, but there is a strong hint this may be the case in the final scene.

After the whole nightmarish setting inside the tree house has been revealed by the camera, Joan gets up from her bow and says, “Oh hey, it’s all right. Charlie, you’re all right now.” And only when the name Charlie is spoken does Peter even begin to turn to look at her. His eyes don’t lift until she says, “You are Paiman, one of the eight kings of Hell.”

This suggests that either Charlie and Paiman’s identities are so interwoven that Paiman can’t distinguish himself without aid, or that when placed in an infant human host, Paiman forgot who he was and Ellen never revealed the truth to him. I honestly don’t have the answer, but based on Aster’s interview, I’d say the second option is more likely. This would mean that Peter is gone. The entire Graham family is gone. Doesn’t sound very hopeful. And Aster himself has said he viewed the story as a Greek tragedy.


I see the film as being very Greek in that sense. This is absolutely inevitable, the family has absolutely no agency.


That’s where the dollhouses came in. Annie creates these miniature figures and dollhouses and they served as a perfect metaphor for the situation; they’re dolls in a dollhouse being manipulated by outside forces. 

Well, that sounds like it just might wrap up everything in a depressing bow and I’ve been rambling here for no reason. But the beauty of art is that it’s subjective. The director always has a vision and it should be respected and contemplated, as well as accepted to a large degree, but good directors and writers understand that audience interpretation is just as important as their own. And I think that there’s something Aster either didn’t anticipate or simply didn’t reveal in this interview. Maybe Peter didn’t have a choice at the very end. Maybe he was chucked from his body into the next life or into nothingness, but … does Paiman have a choice?

Choices crop up all throughout the movie. You can’t drive a plot without choice, even if you are modeling your script on a Greek tragedy. The choices the Graham family makes lead them to the endgame. Sometimes the choices they make feel orchestrated, but other times, they are autonomous. Peter chooses to lie to Annie about the nature of the party. Annie chooses to pressure Charlie into going. Those are their choices and their choices alone, no doubt. Charlie says “Fine,” but is that really a choice of her own? Paiman is not a human being, and thus Charlie is not really a human being (at least not entirely). The way he/she operates is not clearly defined. Maybe the actions of the cult drive Charlie’s choices, because Charlie’s death feels orchestrated. The cult’s symbol is etched on the pole that decapitates her. It feels as though through some sinister power, the cult detected Peter and Annie’s choices and then orchestrated the death of Charlie, leading her to go to the party and eat the cake full of nuts she should have noticed and logically should have avoided. Yes, Peter chose to leave his sister alone entirely of his own accord and Charlie on some level chose to eat the cake, but the accident itself seems like pure chance, though someone clearly orchestrated it with some sort of dark magic, based on the marking on the pole. Is this like mental illness? You make your own choices, but there always seems to be something working against you behind the scenes. Your own brain chemistry tries to thwart you at every turn.

Though Annie physically takes her own life, nothing about her demise suggests free will. The terror in her eyes as she looks silently down at Peter, the strange mechanical movements as she uses the garrote, and the fact that she’s freaking floating in the air suggest she is a puppet on a string. But was it her choices that got her there? She chose to do the ritual because she could not let go of her daughter. In Aster’s interview, he suggests that this choice of Annie’s sped up the process, but the end result was still inevitable. It just would have taken longer. But even then, Annie still made a choice. She had some tiny level of control.

So, if this poor, ordinary family still exercised some degree of control in the story, it seems like Paiman, a powerful prince of Hell, would definitely have autonomy. This idea is backed up by Joan’s words in the treehouse.

We have looked to the northwest, and called you in. We’ve corrected your first, female body and give you now this healthy, male host. We reject the Trinity and pray devoutly to you, Oh Great Paiman. Give us your knowledge of all secret things. Bring us honor, wealth, and good familiars. Bind all men to our will, as we have bound ourselves for now and ever to yours.

Joan and the rest of the cult are not demanding Paiman give them riches and sex slaves and respect, they are asking. This is a prayer, an act of faith. Paiman is in charge here. He holds the power. They provided him with a male host and a place on earth because they believed that was what he desired, and they hope that in return, he will give them what they want.

However, Alex Wolff’s excellent acting here, as Peter/Paiman, suggests they may not get what they want. Paiman may make a choice they aren’t expecting.

The tree house scene is nightmarish. Paiman is surrounded by grisly visions of death and destruction. The headless bodies of the women he knew as his grandmother and mother have been forced into kneeling positions behind him. The smashed head of his former body, the face he knew as his own for many years, is stuck up on a mannequin with a crown. While Joan moves around, places the crown on his head, reveals his identity to him for the first time, and then asks for his blessing, his expression takes on many subtle changes. When he first enters the tree house, he looks utterly confused. However, when he looks at the bodies of Ellen and Annie Graham, something very much like sorrow and reflection commingles with the shock on his face. Joan certainly notices it, which is why she tries to soothe him, telling him it’s all right. Paiman cared for those women, and the cult has desecrated them. In not revealing Paiman’s identity to him, I believe Ellen, aka Queen Leigh, made a massive mistake. She let Paiman grow up as a human child, let him feel love and all the complexities of the human experience.

As the cult begins to chant “Hail Paiman!” Peter/Paiman’s face changes. This expression is not quite as clear, and I believe is meant to be more ambiguous. However, it’s clearly not joy. There is perhaps some excitement in the widening of his eyes, in now understanding who he is, but there is no smile. Not even the hint of a smile. There isn’t an outburst of triumph or happiness at the situation he’s in. No evil laugh. Peter’s nose bandage begins to move with his sudden, shallow breaths. This would suggest nerves, a rush of emotion, perhaps the beginning of tears. So, what will he choose?

The very fact that Paiman didn’t know who he was suggests the cult might have had some false information. Did they really know what Paiman wanted? He doesn’t seem too pleased. Will he still want the same things now that he’s experienced life and love? Will revealing his name to him bring back his original nature? These questions don’t have concrete answers. They are up for interpretation.

He’s a prince of hell, so I’d assume he’s going to cause some chaos here on earth after the screen cuts to black … but will he give these people, these murderers of his earthly mother and father, what they want first? I’m not so sure, and that leaves me with a tiny shred of hope.

SOURCES:

  1. Hereditary. Dir. Ari Aster. Perf. Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, and Milly Shapiro. A24, 2018. Film.
  2. Ari Aster’s interview with Jenelle Riley for Variety: https://variety.com/2018/film/awards/hereditary-ari-aster-answers-burning-questions-1202841448/

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