Life is a Cinema Hall rating: (4 / 5) (This rating is only a snapshot. The details are in the words.)
This piece wasn’t meant to start this way but thanks to the Indian Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and its scissors-gone-loony ways, it’ll be sometime before we get to its raison d’être. There’s no other way to say this but that the Indian Cinematograph Act of 1952 needs an overhaul. And fast. Last updated for a major addition in 1983, the act is, like so many others, archaic at best and state’s agency over creative freedom at its worst. This amidst reports that director Rajkumar Hirani had to spend hours trying to convince the censor board committee that his upcoming Sanju wasn’t trying to peddle a criminal as a man with the golden heart. Really? Is this what a movie board ought to be doing? Deciding how a character must be perceived by the movie-going public, who, for all practical purposes are discerning? And aren’t we? Don’t we spend our money on a movie we choose to watch? Do we refer to—and more importantly—should we be subject to— guidelines that a select group of men and women follow (sometimes, under the nosey eyes of Big Brother at the center or state-level) and interpret it—when we exercise our personal choice to watch a movie? Why would you bother to watch a horror movie—even if it, say, proselytizes social responsibility—if you can’t stand the genre per se? And would you spend your money on a movie only because it promotes bad behavior, been panned by critics, even if it’s an actor you admire, or simply because it’s bagged the U certificate?
In an age where news and opinions fly faster than the speed of thought (and hence the reckless and feckless tweets and online behavior that’s as ubiquitous as the packets that transmit them), where it’s no longer impossible not to watch anything anywhere, when the thrust to transparently digitize and monetize is the order of any open-minded government, where knowledge boundaries are defined not by availability of books and theaters but internet speeds, India, for political reasons (including vote banks that bank on caste) across decades, prefers to depend on a supposedly independent body that’s known to be obsequious to the ruling party when it comes to passing movies for public consumption. So, we have this board that not only defines boundaries of creativity and subjectivity, it also doesn’t hesitate to put on its marauding mask to cut into the very essence of movie-making and cinematic thinking. More about this in a bit and how it’s damned the movie featured in this piece.
Some good news first. In director Ari Aster‘s mind-boggling debut, the horror genre has added yet another honorable bloody bone to its skull cap. Hereditary takes a harrowing look at an ostensibly normal family from the outside. The lives of mom Annie Graham (Toni Collette), dad Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and their children— elder brother Peter (Alex Wolff), and his thirteen-year-old sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro)—might have been idyllic before the movie opens, but as the camera zooms into Peter’s bedroom, you realize it’s the day of Annie’s mother, Ellen’s funeral. Ellen’s passing has affected each family member in different ways, but the most impacted is Charlie, who seems to have had a bond with her granny that went beyond the normal. That is shown in a shocking miniature piece later in the movie.
After the funeral, as the family moves on, Charlie seems to be now troubled by something that’s not outright visible. And as a shocking, jump-in-your-seat scene involving a bird in flight unfolds, you realize that the child is not your regular thirteen year old. There’s something that’s chilling in her behavior. And you’ll have to trust director Aster (who also wrote the movie) to reveal all. In the meantime, he unnerves you almost constantly, but not in a regular-horror-movie-jumpstart-way. There’s scares when you least expect it, but you also shiver in anticipation to know more. In Aster’s hands, regular family life unravels amidst high drama and heartbreaking grief that’s also wrapped in unbearable tension.
The horror and the special effects are sprinkled by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski more by using camera moves that are steady and leisurely-paced than any CGI-morphing masks. He even uses sunny lighting to capture some gawkingly scary moments while some of the sadder parts are in hopelessly lit indoor areas. Hereditary also boasts of some scintillating sound that’s designed to up your goose-bumps at every unsuspecting corner. As does Colin Stetson‘s background score—he played most of the instruments himself, relying largely on bass woodwind instruments, when not recording his own voice to deliver the shivers—which is unsettling, worrisome, and drones in places like an approaching calamity and elsewhere, beats in unison with the action onscreen.
Tying up this Rosemary’s Baby-meets-modern-family-life nerve-wracking effort is its superb cast. Milly Shapiro as the troubled Charlie is sterling, her haunted demeanor as troublesome as it is lonesome. Alex Wolff as her elder brother starts off as a pot-smoking ripped-out character, but his performance takes front-seat later, as he’s pushed into a blind game of mind-bending hopscotch—an act that goes up, up, and away. Gabriel Byrne as the father and husband trying to bring some semblance of normalcy back into the family is superbly subdued and dignified, even as he allows himself one breakdown at a traffic signal.
And Toni Collette is the magnetic, brilliantly skirling front-piece of this project. As someone whose decisions shatter her diorama of work and family—even as you’re left thinking how much of it was deliberate and knowing, knowing as she knows more than she lets in—her performance is sharp and soft, much like a daughter who’s also a mother would be. Her expressions are a kaleidoscope of piercing grief, grotesque desperation, and maternal worry-lines. Collette is hypnotic, unbearably hard to look away, even when you want to—watch her in her scenes with Ann Dowd (very, very good playing Joan, who seems to offer Annie the only way out), or when she’s confronting her son Peter. She’s outstanding.
Hereditary makes the scares work just because it’s obtuse in a lot of ways, not telling what’s happening or what’s transpired, but dim-lighting the way for you. It’s open at some level, and knit up tightly at others. And here’s where the Indian CBFC comes back in. In what has to be a first, if not a global rarity, the board in all its infinite wisdom actually chops and minces the movie all the way, including—hold your breath, the climactic scene, cutting off explanations and the intoning voice that gives you an insight into where the entire movie whirlpools into context—in a bid to ensure you’re saved the blushes and aren’t soiled by the nudity that was shot—and actually, actually sliced off the closing zoom-out shot, making the movie blank off abruptly. Were I the company producing the movie, I, in the firm footsteps of Woody Allen (for Blue Jasmine) and David Fincher (for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), would’ve disallowed the screening of my dismembered creation in India. Do the board members snip and cut because they think they’ve been entrusted with keeping the public morality spiffy and shining? Or because they’ve itchy hands and bored minds? Isn’t it high time the board simply assigned certifications and let the audience pick and choose their onscreen poison? Isn’t it curtains time for political parties to stop using cinema as yet another cleaver to bleed out the votes?
Hereditary works at two levels. On the cinematic level, where its story scares us into thinking just how much of a cosmic roulette it is for us to be born into the families we are. Especially when the genes kick in even before we’re born—and then, as in this case, pave the way for a horrifying story, even as its characters, just like all of us at some level, are trapped in a terrarium out of which there’s no escape. And on an unintentional level because it’s as much a worrisome victim of censorship as we are. Even more worryingly, as with our hereditary genes, we don’t seem to have a choice there either.
Life is a Cinema Hall ratings chart
(1 / 5): Don’t bother
(2 / 5): Not too great
(3 / 5): Worth a watch
(4 / 5): Very good
(5 / 5): Drop everything else NOW
Hereditary is rated A (Restricted to adults) But do yourself a favor and don’t watch the mutilated version in Indian cinema halls. Beg, borrow, steal from your favorite cousin Rachel from overseas to watch the familial horror.
Director Ari Aster Running Time 2h 7min
Writer Ari Aster
Stars Toni Collette, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff
Genres Drama, Horror, Mystery, Thriller
Watch the trailer of Hereditary here: