Written and Directed by: Ari Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Milly Shapiro, and Gabriel Byrne
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“I just don't want to put anymore stress on my family."
Hereditary opens with an obituary, casting an immediate pall over the film that never lifts. The air of death hangs thick over Ari Aster’s stunning feature debut, providing the only certainty in an otherwise obscure, off-kilter affair. A deep, abiding, and almost preternatural sense of doom lingers over its haunted family, visited here by personal demons and spirits from its past, now passed down either through genetics or something else entirely. You spend much of the film guessing at just what is haunting them, and Aster teases multiple possibilities out of their palpable grief, shame, and regret. More importantly, he never loses sight of that humanity, thus ensuring that Hereditary is a genuinely nerve-rattling film, one that seeks to burrow into straight into your core after it pierces through your body, mind, and soul.
When we meet the Grahams, they’re mourning the loss of maternal grandmother Leigh, whose tense, unsettling funeral reveals a bizarre brood. When tasked with delivering a eulogy, Leigh’s only surviving daughter, Annie (Toni Collette), can only muster a few words, most of which refer to her mother’s secretive life. You immediately sense that something’s not quite right here: not only does Annie seem to be relieved—or unburdened in some way—but the rest of her family pretty much follows suit. Teenaged son Peter (Alex Wolff) can’t even muster up an admission of sadness when pressed by his father (Gabriel Byrne); likewise, his younger sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro) seems just as unaffected by her grandmother’s passing.
In fact, not much seems to affect Charlie at all: of all the Graham’s she’s certainly the strangest of the bunch, prone to sleeping up in her treehouse even when the temperature drops below freezing and staring vacantly off into space. Shapiro creates an innately strange presence as Charlie, a 13-year-old who somehow feels like a much older soul. She’s quite a disturbed one, too, as evidenced by an episode of school that finds her quietly slipping away to clip off—and then pocket—the head of a dead bird. It’s the first moment in Hereditary that’s overtly chilling: up until this point, Aster is content to be suggestive, if not a bit coy—you know something is bound to further unravel this family, and Charlie’s behavior is the first signal into an obvious direction. Perhaps she’s the latest cinematic bad seed, poised to unravel her family with her sociopathic deeds; maybe there’s something entirely different going on with Charlie—after all, a man leering at her in the distance at her grandmother’s funeral is deeply weird.
But just when you think you’ve pinned down where Hereditary is headed, Aster yanks the entire movie from beneath the audience with a staggering sequence. I’m talking a gasp-inducing, hand-over-your-mouth, “holy shit, did that really happen?” turn of events that sends shockwaves through the audience, whose whispers float throughout the auditorium in disbelief. Aster obliges it by confirming the twist with a remarkably fucked-up image that I’m unlikely to forget anytime soon—in fact, it just might be the most disturbing thing that’ll unfold on a multiplex screen this year. What’s less debatable is that it’s the shock to Hereditary’s system, a tragic moment that charts the course for the rest of the film, which plays out as equal parts horror puzzle box and twisted family drama.
The latter is the more immediate path, as the family finds itself recovering from yet another tragedy. At this point, the pall over Hereditary is even more pronounced: an already quiet film becomes choked with near-silence, unfolding at the tenor of a perpetual whisper. Grief, pain, and repressed resentments suffocate the proceedings, creating the sensation of watching this family delicately walk around the eggshells of their shattered lives. Dinner conversations become battlegrounds where words double as pointed barbs—in some cases, aimed right at the soul—leaving the audience to recoil at the horror of watching a family tear itself apart. You spend a good hour of Hereditary wincing awkward exchanges, heated arguments, and nighttime confessions that reveal just how fragile this family has become—or, perhaps, always been. On at least one level, this is a movie about the insidious nature of trauma, specifically the way it can slowly seep and slither into the brain, working to poke and prod before finally breaking you down into a creature driven by pure desperation.
Leading the charge here is Collette, whose powerhouse turn as Annie propels Hereditary to a deeply resonant plane. So many films about haunted families choose to see is characters as pawns to be maneuvered on an elaborate board of scares, but Hereditary is almost inside-out in this regard. Annie’s struggle to keep both herself and her family together forms the crux of the film, while most of the explicit horror elements linger around the margins, waiting to consume her. Before that happens, though, Aster and Collette paint a portrait of a nuanced woman: I can’t imagine this is an easy role to play, not when it requires the incredible amount of range on display here.
Collette plumbs the depths on an incredibly twisted headspace as Annie reckons with both her grief and resentment. The former is obvious since Annie endures two losses, one admittedly more heartbreaking than the other; the latter, however, reveals a troubling—yet still quite understandably human—side to a fragile woman whose maternal instincts have always been a little haywire. Conversations with fellow mourners at a support group reveal her family’s long bout with various mental illnesses that claimed the lives of her mother, father, and an older brother. Both Aster and Collette treat this with delicacy—you could easily imagine a version of this character succumbing to overwrought hysterics, but Collette maintains a largely restrained approach.
She’s no less frantic, but it’s more of a quiet desperation that reveals itself in both large moments (one of those dinnertime confrontations is especially cutting) and small ones (you sense a desire to exert a control over her life in the tiny, model homes and dioramas she constructs for an art gallery). Without making it explicit, it becomes clear that Hereditary—as its title suggests—is about a mother’s deep, abiding fear that she’s inherited whatever madness has beset her family; worse, a later, crucial turn of events preys on her fears of being dismissed precisely because of that madness, flinging her into a maelstrom of her own confusion and convictions all at once: at a certain point, it’s fair for us to question if what’s unfolding are the fevered illusions of a brain broken by mental illness and abuse.
However, lurking in the distance—like the ominous rumble of thunder before a storm—is the dreadful sense that something else is indeed at work. Even when he’s not treading into overt horror elements, Aster creates menace through slow, deliberate camera movement, foreboding zooms, and atmospheric establishing shots. Colin Stetson’s guttural score trembles with a sinister intent, helping to shade every frame with that inevitable, deathly pall, creating the impression of a horror movie without necessarily indulging the genre’s most obvious whims at every turn. Eventually, though, even those begin to mount, right around the time Aster’s script brings its particulars into focus through unsettling family photos, flitting specters, and even ominous doormats.
It’s an unusual array of puzzle pieces that slowly lock together during a stunning final act, where the story’s slow burn mechanics burst into a conflagration of nightmares, memories, delusions, and unreal (but no less lucid) mysticism. Heredity slowly becomes a canvas for numerous terrifying sequences, some of which unfold right under your nose before your eye actually catches them, revealing Aster’s deft touch. Throughout the film, you’re compelled to wonder just what is going on here, and Aster masterfully plays it close to his vest, eventually revealing them in almost coy fashion. To the very end, he coaxes a sort of aghast awe from the audience, who must traipse among headless corpses and barbaric rituals before Aster delivers his final answer.
Depending on your persuasion, you’ll either be satisfied or frustrated by how clear it is: Hereditary isn’t the least bit ambiguous by the end, when it conjures up a wicked, hellraising mythology that we’re only able to briefly glimpse before the credits roll. Considering how heavy the film weights before this point, the final moments feel unusually playful, especially once you realize the amount of misdirection involved here, right down to the title. Hereditary is certainly about passing something on, but it’s not at all what you expect it to be for most of the runtime. Some viewers with understandably balk at the slight tonal shift here: while I wouldn’t characterize this staggeringly bleak moment as “fun,” there’s definitely an impish nature to the twisting, turning nature of its reveal. There’s perhaps the concern that Hereditary becomes a different sort of film here: what was a tense, absorbing mediation on grief, trauma, and other parental anxieties transforms into something a touch more pulpy and schlocky.
Which is not to say Hereditary isn’t ultimately about those weighty themes: it very much is, as Aster simply gnarls, twists, and threads them through an occult lens that projects them onto another, more inexplicably evil canvas. For about 90 minutes, Hereditary is an unsettling, soul-shaking crucible forged from a family’s encounter with unfathomable tragedy; somehow, it grows into an even more satisfying—and dare I say rad—horror movie that resonates into the deepest nether-regions of your psyche and lurks there, waiting to haunt your nightmares long after the lights in the auditorium come up.
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