In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for Hereditary, we look at important motifs that help us understand the film.
- Annie Graham – Toni Collette
- Steve Graham – Gabriel Byrne
- Peter Graham – Alex Wolff
- Charlie Graham – Milly Shapiro
- Ellen Taper Leigh – Kathleen Chalfant
- Joan – Ann Dowd
- Bridget – Mallory Bechtel
- Written by – Ari Aster
- Directed by – Ari Aster
Important motifs in Hereditary
Annie is a renowned miniature artist, creating tiny, extremely detailed renderings of places and scenes. Hereditary uses the camera in such a way as to sometimes make the real world appear as if it were a miniature. The first example of this is the opening scene. The camera goes from looking at the treehouse out a window to a miniature of the Graham house. It zooms in on the replication of Peter’s room, allowing the room to fill the entire frame. Without a cut or transition, the miniature becomes reality. It’s actually Peter in his bed. His father, Steve, and the family dog enter the room. On the flip side, the very end of the movie cuts from being in “reality” to being a miniature of Paimon’s crowning in the treehouse.
The importance and meaning of the miniature isn’t something Hereditary ever has explicit dialogue about. We see Annie create miniatures based on her life. These range from something neutral, like the Graham house, to the traumatic, like the scene of Charlie’s accident with the telephone pole, complete with head in the road.
A potential consideration comes into play when you consider the camerawork in Hereditary. For instance, in the opening scene, the camera roves as if in a first-person perspective. It’s a bit too rigid to feel completely natural, like someone turning their head or walking forward, but, all the same, there’s something present about it. This idea of presence lines up with the fact that throughout Hereditary spirits are in the house. The afterlife is real. It’s not just a trick of the eye that Annie sees the ghost of her mother, Ellen. Ellen’s spirit is there. And at points throughout the film, Aster makes sure to use an actual POV shot. Whether it’s a teacher walking up on Charlie not paying attention in class, or Peter checking out his classmate. The use of POV shots at other points reinforces the notion that sometimes there are POV shots from the spiritual perspective.
The implication of this would be some commentary on the scale and scope of the world. In Hereditary, the afterlife exists. Hell exists. Heaven probably exists. Meaning our reality is just a small part of the whole. There are much larger forces beyond our comprehension. They would probably look at our world as this miniature they’re observing. So that opening shot where the “camera” moves into Peter’s room could be read as, say, Ellen’s spirit or Paimon’s spirit moving into the house.
There’s also something to the idea of the miniatures being similar to dolls and doll houses. Which would tie into the idea of the theme of powerlessness and fate. Powers beyond our comprehension are maneuvering and manipulating individuals. Charlie, Peter, Annie, Steve. None of them really had a choice or chance. The same way Annie is a “god” of the miniatures she creates, there are Annie equivalents “making” the “miniature” that is our reality.
Charlie cuts off the bird’s head. She loses her head. The coven removes Ellen’s head. Then a possessed Annie saws off her own. This is all part of the ceremony to move Paimon’s spirit into Peter’s body.
Generally speaking, human bodies are interchangeable. Identity is associated with someone’s head. Their face. Their brain. If your friend kept the same head but had a new body, it would probably be shocking but familiar enough. If they had the same body but a completely different head—a whole new face—they’d probably feel completely alien.
It seems the implication in Hereditary is that headlessness is important to possession, to the swapping of one identity for another. One of Ellen’s books does note that a ceremony must be performed to unbind Paimon’s spirit from one body to move it to another. Maybe there’s something to the idea of nogging chopping as a means of freeing a body from possession? Either way, the broader concept that’s important to the conversation is identity.
And mental health? On a more practical level, Hereditary deals with the genetic aspect of mental disorder. How a disorder can pass from parent to child and the impact untreated disorder can have on a family. The emphasis on missing heads could be symbolism tied to this concept.
It seems Ellen’s coven knew for a while that the treehouse would be the location for the crowning of Paimon. Hereditary implies everything that happens is pretty much fated and out of the control of Charlie, Peter, Annie, and Steve. Meaning that the opening shot of the treehouse is a pointed one. It’s the film essentially acknowledging, “See that place? We’re going to end up there in just a bit.” If Paimon’s possession of Peter is as big of a deal as Ellen’s book on the topic makes it seem—he is a demon king, after all—then the treehouse is essentially the place where the world changes forever.
So all the imagery of the treehouse, especially with the red light shining from it, foreshadows the demonic ceremony that will take place there.
What are your thoughts?
Are there more motifs you think should be part of the Colossus Movie Guide for Hereditary? Leave your thoughts below and we’ll consider them for the guide.