Depictions of bad mother-artists can be found in virtually every medium. Look to literature and you’ll find the cruel actress Irina, who taunts her son into a suicide attempt in Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull, as well as J.M. Coetzee’s 2003 book, Elizabeth Costello, in which the titular novelist’s son recalls standing with his crying sister outside their mother’s locked study door. In cinema, there’s Elizabeth Taylor’s artist cum adulteress in Vincente Minnelli’s drama The Sandpiper. Even in the frothiest TV, there’s Friends’ Nora Bing as a Jackie Collins–style novelist, and Gossip Girl’s Eleanor Waldorf, a fashion-designer mom and a nasty piece of work who outsources maternal duties to her maid. These representations share the idea that despite becoming mothers, these women have unnaturally resisted the requirements of the role, failing to redirect their attention and emotional energies to the proper object.
Hereditary is more subtle in its depiction of Annie than, say, the 1981 docudrama Mommie Dearest, which explored allegations that the actress Joan Crawford abused her adoptive daughter, or the more sharply humorous iteration of actresses as terrible mothers in Mike Nichols’s adaptation of Carrie Fisher’s Postcards From the Edge. In their own ways, these popular based-on-a-true-story films imply that the successes of these moms came at a cost. The narratives frame famous creative women in relation to their domestic roles, rather than their artistic ones, rewriting their achievements as failures.
Unlike many of these works, Hereditary takes seriously the messy, often taboo feelings about parenting that many moms experience. In one intense dream sequence, Annie shouts “I never wanted to be your mother” at her son, Peter, before quickly explaining how much she now loves him. Another scene shows Annie shaken by the death of her daughter, Charlie, rocking back and forth on the floor like an animal, and later screaming at her son, whom she blames for her loss. Collette is fabulous throughout, giving an intense performance of the guilt, grief, anger, and abiding love that come with parenthood. In other words, Annie’s feelings distinguish her from the idealized images of mothers as nurturing domestic angels, like the one recently depicted in the post-apocalyptic horror film A Quiet Place. But while Hereditary grants Annie complexity as a mother, it doesn’t extend this empathy to her role as an artist, and instead offers a relatively one-note approach to her work.
Hereditary’s shallow depiction of Annie’s career quickly unwinds its more thoughtful considerations of motherhood. Throughout the film, artistic commitments undermine what should, in the eyes of many, be a mother’s primary allegiance. The movie begins with the funeral for Annie’s late mother, Ellen. At the service, Annie delivers a eulogy: “My mother was a secretive and private woman. She had private rituals, private friends, private anxieties.” On one hand, her words create an air of mystery and unease. On the other, they just paint an image of a woman who has kept part of herself separate from her offspring. Later, Annie discovers an ominous note when going through Ellen’s possessions: “Our sacrifice will pale next to the rewards.” Though Annie doesn’t understand the message yet—Ellen is later revealed to be a witch—it serves as an artist’s statement of sorts: Hereditary can be read as a cautionary tale about selfish women who sacrifice their family to their craft.