* * * Potential Spoilers * * *
Going into Hereditary, I was anticipating the average jump scare, loud bang “boo!” fest. The kind of film I usually loathe because I find them to be a cheat. Hereditary begins a slow burner, which builds up to a soul destroying, truly horrific scene that changes the entire course of the film, and really leaves you numb.
As the scene played out, I found myself watching, transfixed to the screen, wishing I could somehow look away. But unable to do so. My legs were trembling, my mouth went dry, and a cold sweat was trickling down my back. I felt like I was experiencing some sort of living nightmare. The cinema may have been packed with people, but I felt truly alone, trembling in the dark.
The infamous scene occurs after Charlie (Milly Shapiro) accidentally ingests peanuts while attending a party with her brother, which triggers a severe allergic reaction. As a result Charlie goes into anaphylactic shock. As her brother, Peter (Alex Wolff), speeds down a dark country road to reach a hospital before she suffocates to death. We assume that Peter is going to make it to the hospital, he may be told off by their parents, but Charlie will survive. She is featured a lot in the trailer after all. Charlie clutches her throat and writhes violently in the backseat. Desperate for air, Charlie puts half of her body out of the window, just as Peter suddenly swerves to miss an animal carcass in the road… Then something truly terrifying occurs, something so disturbing and shocking, that it took me days to process.
The aftermath is presented in almost eerie silence, with Peter gripping the steering wheel, the camera tight on his face and his wide eyes doing all the talking to us. Wolff’s performance in this scene is intense, and magnificent to say the least. If eyes are the windows to the soul, than Peter’s soul has just been ripped from him.
We find ourselves whispering advice to him through the screen, “do something, don’t just sit there. There’s still time. Move, move.” And we also find ourselves begging him and the camera not to turn around, and we find ourselves preparing for the moment that Peter slowly turns his head, but it never comes and it’s the power of what we don’t see that makes this scene so powerful.
It’s a brilliant twist that comes out of nowhere, something that seemed very unexpected. Director and writer Ari Aster works well to subvert our expectations of the horror genre, and he refuses to allow us any relief – we are trapped within this car with Peter and there’s no way out.
When asked about the twist, Aster stated that “as a spectator, [I] am always hoping for that from a movie. For that moment that tells me that I am no longer in control of this experience and I am in a filmmaker’s hands, because I know that I personally am very tired of going to films and knowing how they’re going to go and then having that feeling validated.”
The scene’s strength lies in the fact that it plays on our deepest fears. The fear of regret, the fear of shame, and the fear of hurting a loved one. This powerful and impactful sequence of unexpected events, show us that true horror lies in the actions of human beings, and not in the supernatural. A careless, thoughtless act can have terrible consequences that shake the very foundations that make up a family unit. Regardless of whether you enjoyed the rest of the film, you cannot deny the power of this one scene.