Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers about Hereditary. It also contains some spooky stuff!!!
Poor Steve. Dutiful Steve. Exhausted Steve. Bottling-it-all-up-for-the-sake-of-his-family Steve. Roped-into-an-ill-advised-séance-to-help-his-wife-communicate-with-their-dead-daughter Steve. Almost-ran-a-red-light Steve, then-broke-down-and-cried-at-the-utter-hopelessness-of-it-all Steve. Made-a-nice-dinner-(looked-like-chicken?)-but-it-was-totally-ruined-because-Toni-Colette-had-to-deliver-a-monologue Steve.
Steve. Steve. Steve.
You might’ve heard by now that Hereditary is a very scary scary movie, quite possibly the scariest scary movie of the year. I’m here to tell you that you’ve heard correctly: it is the scariest scary movie of the year—although, if we’re being precise, it’s more disturbing than scary, what with the headless corpses, attempted filicide, naked cult members and a chocolate-eating little girl who—shocker!—draws creepy shit in a journal. It’s true what I’m sure someone said one time: you just can’t get a horror movie greenlit in Hollywood these days without a tortured child artist.
The film follows the family Graham, whose matriarch, Annie (Toni Collette) has just laid to rest her mother, Ellen. She is a miniaturist, and up in her workshop, she meticulously creates reproductions of her own home—its rooms, its people, the scenes from her everyday life. Peter (Alex Wolff) is her teenage son; he has a mole and likes smoking pot. That’s pretty much all there is to say about Peter. Then there’s Charlie (Milly Shapiro). She’s the creepy child illustrator, with social issues, which we know because, when a bird flies headlong into a school window, Charlie finds it during recess and cuts its head off with a pair of scissors. Classic Charlie! She’s also 1) obsessed with chocolate; 2) allergic to some form of nuts. This is important.
When Peter is invited to a party, Annie implores him to bring Charlie along. In what might be the most unbelievable part of the movie, Peter gives in without much of a fight, and he bring his lame 13-year-old sister to a cool-kid high school party. Absolutely horrifying.
Once there, Peter ditches Charlie to go smoke pot with a girl he likes, more or less by literally distracting her with chocolate cake. Charlie eats it, but apparently it has nuts; her throat starts closing up, and Peter, stoned as fuck, carries her out and speeds off towards a nearby hospital. But when Charlie sticks her head out the window to get some air, and Peter has to veer the car to avoid running over road kill, her head hits an electricity pole at 80mph and is knocked straight off. Peter, stunned, returns home and wanders upstairs to bed, leaving his sister’s headless body in the backseat.
This is the first act of the movie. And what begins as a weighty family psychodrama curdles, in the words of director Ari Aster, into a nightmare. The house becomes a prison. Gripped with grief, Annie begins to fall apart. Then a bunch of weird supernatural shit starts happening, prompted by Joan (Ann Dowd), who suspiciously approaches Annie at a support group and implores her to have a séance for Charlie. Long story short: Annie’s mother was part of a Satanic cult, which is sacrificing the remaining Grahams in order to find the devil a suitable host body. So much for the weighty family psychodrama!
But, wait, I totally forgot about Steve, didn’t I?
Silly me. People are always forgetting Steve. Steve is Annie’s husband. He’s a shrink. He wears glasses and sweaters. He’s got a rather hospitable paunch. Played by Gabriel Byrne, his look is a constant expression of resignation: his haunted countenance has a permanent “fuck my life” quality to it. You get the sense that he realy doesn’t want to be dealing with this shit—his grief, his wife’s grief, his son’s grief, dinner—and yet he tries to keep it together, for the sake of his family.
When the cemetery calls to say his mother-in-law’s grave has been dug up, and the corpse is missing, who takes care of it? Steve.
When Peter bashes his own head into his desk at school, who drives over to pick him up? Steve.
When Annie starts spending the night alone in Charlie’s weird treehouse out back, who opts to take a bunch of pills and sleep on the couch? Steve.
Steve is the audience cipher, in a film so disturbing it can feel, at times, impenetrable. As Annie descends into madness, and Peter, overcome with guilt and depression, sinks further into himself, Steve is the one who expresses how the viewer feels, watching the tragedy unfold. When he finally breaks down in the car, you want to break down with him. He’s the last person holding them together, but he’s not up to the task. Because of course he isn’t. How could he be?
Steve—unfortunately, inevitably—does not come out unscathed. He actually comes out very scathed. He goes up in flames. Literally; he burns to death in the Graham’s living room (see above). Then his wife stabs her own neck until her head falls off and his son becomes possessed by some devil king.
But still: Steve.