Warning: This story contains major spoilers for Hereditary.
I knew going in to see Hereditary, Ari Aster's directorial debut that has earned a reputation as the scariest movie of the year, that I was going to regret it. I am most definitely the kind of person who scares myself walking to the bathroom in the middle of the night, scurrying back under my covers to avoid thinking about the furniture suddenly morphing into a Thing that can somehow murder me in my sleep. Hereditary plays on those kinds of horrors, the things that hide in the corner of the room, only discernible in that blink-of-an-eye state between asleep and awake. But its real strength lies in the exploration of more terrifying, more unspeakable Things: grief, mental illness, and the traumas we inherit from our parents.
That's why the ending is bonkers for a number of reasons.
The first is that what happens is just legitimately confusing. The first two-thirds of the film focus on Annie Graham (Toni Colette) a mother of two who has just lost her own mother, Evelyn (Ellen Burstyn) to cancer. To say their relationship was strained is to put it mildly. Annie blames her mother for her traumatic childhood marred by her father's severe depression, which led to a self-imposed death by starvation. Her brother, who had schizophrenia, later died by suicide. But as the movie goes on, you get the sense that it's about more than resentment — Annie fears her mother's legacy, both in herself and her children.
As her grandmother's favorite, her death hits Annie's daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), hardest. Always a little strange, the 13-year-old starts acting out: cutting off birds' heads, sketching increasingly dark fantasies in her notebook, sneaking out to the treehouse in the yard to sleep, despite freezing temperatures. When the family is once more hit by unspeakable tragedy (I won't spoil it here, although if you're reading about the ending of this movie, I really hope you've seen it), Annie retreats ever more into herself, avoiding her son, Peter (Alex Wolff), and her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), in favor of Joan (Ann Dowd), a woman she meets during a secret stint in grief counseling, and with whom she can share her pain.
Which brings us back to the ending: All of a sudden, a story about Annie's nose-dive into the darkest depths of her mind pivots into the supernatural, in a climax so gory as to rival any horror film that has come before it. Having already set her husband on fire while under the influence of an evil spirit, Annie turns on her son, chasing him around the house (but not before lurking, suspended in the upper corner of his bedroom ceiling while he sleeps, an image that will be burned into my brain forever) and up into the attic before garroting herself with a wire. (Yes, you see every single second of it.)
The film closes on a shot of Peter, standing in the candle-lit treehouse, surrounded by bowing figures —members of his late-grandmother's devil-worshipping cult. (Was this a cult movie all along? Does psychological trauma not actually matter as much as we thought? All valid questions.) His body is now possessed by the demon spirit of Paemon, "one of the eight kings of hell," who, it turns out, had been lurking inside Charlie this whole time. So, yeah. Confusing.
Still, what's really baffling is why a film that so hinges around the inner lives of women would choose to end on the image of a man. The "Final Girl" trope is an old faithful of horror movies. It refers to the character— overwhelmingly portrayed by young, nubile women — who is left standing at the end of the action. Her friends and family are dead; she's usually covered in blood, or missing a limb — basically, she has nothing left to lose. This is her story now. Hereditary does the opposite, ending with a final boy. "We have corrected your first female body," the cult chants. Paemon, it turns out, is kind of a dudebro, eschewing female hosts for the physical power of the male body.
This would all be fine, I guess, if Hereditary hadn't set me up to expect an entirely different conclusion. The idea of motherhood, and the question of who is fit or unfit for the role (or even wants it), is central to the story leading up to those final moments. Colette gives one of the best and most compelling performances of her career, but nothing hits home quite like the moment she dreams of telling her son that she tried to have a miscarriage rather than become his mother. If you're looking to Hereditary to fill your scare quota for the year (or a lifetime, in my case) by all means. It will not disappoint there — without a doubt, this is one of the most unsettling films I have ever seen.
But the ending robs the audience of the most terrifying moment of all: realizing that the most horrible moments we've witnessed are all too possible, and that in the real world, they can't be explained away by a inter-generational cult. In fact, they might not have any answers at all.
Hereditary is in theaters June 8.