Director: Ari Aster
Screenplay: Ari Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Byrne
Runtime: 127 Minutes
What’s instantly notable about Hereditary is what an insidiously different kind of creature it ends up becoming from the initial outlook. That’s not just in relation to the nature of its methodically layered uncovering of plot twists and dark revelations, but much like a majority of recent independent pictures (many of which also being released by A24) the internet hype machine has been pushing a transcendent horror experience in such a way that it could only disappoint those going in expecting this to be the scariest horror film since The Exorcist.
What it has in common with the likes of The Witch, The Babadook and It Comes at Night is the slow-burning quality of a dark, psychologically traumatising form of metaphysical arthouse horror that has been smuggled into mainstream multiplexes under some rather deceptive marketing pretences.
So, while Hereditary doesn’t operate in the same field as some of its more popular kin, what it does deliver on is one of the most haunting, shocking and overwhelmingly menacing horror films of recent years. One that uses the foundations and benchmarks of its own genre as a means of continuously knocking the audience off balance regarding where they think the film might be heading.
It’s a devious task to pull off as writer/director Ari Aster toys with the audience over and over again and forces them to let go of their perceptions of what makes a horror film horrifying. Sure, the requisite imagery that he conjures and dark forces at play within the narrative will ultimately feel familiar to those versed in the genre to some degree, but the way in which he executes it is so ingeniously well staged, vibrantly performed and emotionally unsettling that it makes up for so much of its mechanics by the time it’s over.
The story itself follows the Graham family, who find themselves haunted following the death of their reclusive grandmother and recovering from the emotional hole she left in their lives. Of course, what this is all actually trying to express is the complicated sensations of grief that can be felt in a family when somebody passes, and that things left unspoken or unresolved can haunt a family and its individual members in more ways than one.
But, as the title might suggest, what it also handles are the many things that we pass down the generations. From mannerisms and mental illnesses to the ways in which we choose to express ourselves manifesting in different forms.
Toni Collette as mother Annie, for instance, buries herself back into her work producing miniaturised representations of moments in her life for an art exhibit as a means of coping. These become very real physical representations of the past that not only convey wordless backstory, but also expose her desire for control over the people in her life, and the intricate way in which she places them around the miniature sets maps the frightfully arch way that Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski lay out the frame.
Her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) also buries herself in her artwork, but her talents are more avant-garde and grizzly than her mothers consisting of scribbling books, twigs and decapitated bird heads. The eldest son Peter (Alex Wolff) spends much of his time ignoring schoolwork, smoking pot and chasing after girls. While father and husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) tries to keep the strands together as the straight man put in an extraordinary situation.
What follows is a narrative that doesn’t become more apparent until well into the third act, opting to drape the mundane proceedings with a confrontational and oppressive atmosphere that smothers every exchange, crossed word and argument boiling up from the longstanding resentments of their pasts.
But when things do start going wrong, the film takes a plunge into some dark and upsetting territory that some viewers simply won’t be able to handle. In particular, a sequence involving Peter in a stationary vehicle following the immediate aftermath of something unspeakably horrible happening. Where the range of shock and emotion following this gut-churning event is played out in a long-suspended reaction shot of the young Alex Wolff processing the alarm of what’s just happened alongside the audience, only to go on to do something even more unexpected and disconcerting.
The whole film plays out like this, with so many shots focused on the gasped looks of twisted and contorted horror on the faces of the family members whenever something frightening occurs. It relies on the spell of its cast and the emotional range of its characters to drive the terror up, as Aster’s locked down frames and slow pans and zooms carry more anxiety than simply showing what they see upfront. Sometimes the most disturbing sight can be one played out in the corner of the frame, and Aster and the crew play this card so well they repeat it multiple times to lingering and rewarding effect.
The cast are astounding in their roles, especially considering the demanding work that they are asked of later on as the film takes a turn from troubling psychodrama into a plummeting Giallo fuelled nightmare in the final scenes. Milly Shapiro is a newcomer but plays the role of the creepy girl in a very different gear and mould. Alex Wolff is an amazing talent really coming into his own, once again considering the lengths that he needs to take the role too. Gabriel Byrne is underplaying it but in the best way he knows how too, and the same goes for Ann Dowd on hand as an initially thankless but essential role as the nosey but well-meaning outsider who tries to help out.
But Toni Collette is the star here and she owns the movie with a raving and gasping fury and passion. She throws herself into the role of a deeply tormented woman being pushed to her boundaries by the circumstances she’s been placed in, and then pushing her overboard into something else entirely more troubling as she becomes more understandable and believably fragile.
What Hereditary does best is following the through line established by the greats of its genre, one that uses the foundations of reflective drama to unpack deep psychological concerns through a showcase of shocking violence and relentless intensity. All the while doing its best to keep the audience on its toes at it arranges its surprisingly austere puzzle box narrative in the most compelling way possible, with its elegance hiding a deeply nasty but riveting spectacle of ferocity and bloodshed.