Directed By: Ari Aster
Release Date: June 8, 2018
Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Byrne
Ari Aster's Hereditary isn't the type of horror movie that rewards impatience. It has its moments of in-your-face terror, but it's less interested in keeping its audience on a rollercoaster ride of overt chills and thrills than it is in methodically cranking up the tension bit by bit, slowly nudging both its characters and its viewers towards the edge of a cliff over which awaits the open maw of insanity.
The film starts quietly, taking us to the wake for the mother of Annie Graham. As we come to learn, Annie and her mother had a troubled history together, one tainted by the presence of mental illness that affected Annie's mother, her late father, and her brother, who had long ago committed suicide. Though Annie attempts to cope with her loss, unsure of exactly whether to feel remorse or relief over the death of her overbearing parent, it's from this event that tragedy swiftly descends upon her family, which consists of her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), son Peter (Alex Wolff), and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), sending them all down a path that shatters their bond to pieces.
To say where the film goes following its opening minutes would be to give away the surprises that rest at Hereditary's core, as it takes great strides to use our expectations going into the film of what it could be against us. A character sees what could very well be a ghost early in the film, but the film posits the idea that the vision could be in their head, while Charlie's odd behavior is paired with the unique look of young actress Milly Shapiro to play into the "creepy child" trope that we've seen unfold in countless horror movies before, but it's not so cut and dry.
There's an active subversion at play throughout the film's first act that's coated with a fine layer of surrealism. The more we discover about Annie, about her mother, and about the mental illness running in the family, the more the film asks us to question what's real and what's not in the film, situating Annie - and even the children - as potentially unreliable narrators through which we're seeing this world. When someone begins to lose their grip on sanity, looking into their reflection only to see it smiling back at them, we're left to wonder if their mind is being lost to the effects of something psychological - schizophrenia, perhaps - or if there is something more sinister at play, blurring the line between the genealogical and the spiritual.
It's this uncertainty about what's going on that makes watching Hereditary such an effectively tense experience, with Aster - a first-time feature director - showing remarkable restraint in letting things unfold, the atmosphere growing thicker the deeper we get into the film as each new crack in the Graham family's veneer proves more horrifying than if the film had simply spent its time bombarding us with jump scares. That's not to say that the film doesn't have its moments that had my audience screaming, though; the last 15 or so minutes in particular had several images that left my skin crawling thanks in part to Aster's use of low lighting to mask things hidden in frame until the right moment. But that stretch ultimately feels like a release valve for the pressure the film builds up to that point, effective only because Hereditary earns it by meticulously getting us there inch by inch.
That said, where Hereditary winds up in its closing minutes is going to be undeniably divisive. Though the audience I saw the film with reacted to every spooky moment throughout, there was also an overwhelming sense of frustration, for lack of a better word, with people lashing out at it during its slow burn process, from wannabe comedians constantly imitating a clucking noise that Charlie does throughout the film to the groans and negative commentary I heard once the film's end credits began. The closest modern experience I can compare it to was my viewing of The Witch back in 2015, a similar film that found its strength in its atmosphere over shock value and ended on both a narrative and thematic note you're either on board with or not. Like The Witch, Hereditary is a movie whose tension is easily deflated by people acting tough or feeling the need to let everyone else know they're bored, and I only bring that up because it regrettably happened in my screening - on a Friday night, so I should've known better - thus I recommend seeing the film during matinee hours if you plan on checking it out in theaters to be able to fully appreciate the ambiance that the film exudes.
I'd be remiss, too, to not mention the cast's work here; in lesser hands, this family could've been overwhelmed by the material to become a generic mess, but everyone turns in solid work, from Byrne's understated performance of a husband slowly getting crushed under the weight of his wife's personality to Wolff's turn as a son who finds an inescapable horror put upon his shoulders to the young Shapiro's perpetual state of heartbreaking isolation. However, Toni Collette is, no surprise, the standout, delivering a traumatized performance in which seeds of guilt (for her) and doubt (for us) are sprinkled. There's a constant sense that she's repressing something, which - when paired with the idea that she, too, could be suffering from a mental condition - all plays into the unease that permeates the proceedings, with scenes of her simply interacting with others standing out as highlights of the film more than any of the outright "scary" moments, whether it be her emotional divulgence of her family history to a support group she attends or an uncomfortable family dinner where words unspoken are finally laid out for all to hear.
What Aster achieves with Hereditary is a cinematic puzzle where the overall final image isn't clear until the very end, each piece falling into place along the way even if they may seem irrelevant. Seemingly throwaway lines of dialogue from Charlie about her grandmother or about the circumstances of Annie's brother's suicide early on suddenly have new meaning by film's end, and carved words and symbols that pop up on walls and roadside telephone poles are given context that force you to reassess their appearances and influence on the narrative throughout. It's surprising, reassembling certain genre tropes we've grown accustomed to in a way that feels relatively fresh, and though the ultimate picture this big puzzle forms may not be for everyone, the intentionally uncomfortable journey getting there is reward enough for those willing to take it.
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