Review: Hereditary

The resurgence of horror at the flicks continues with the quite frankly unique and very mental Hereditary, a horror film that feels fresh in its focus on character as well as a commitment to an increasingly insane plot.

Miniatures artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) starts to move on after the death of her overbearing mother, while her introverted daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) struggles to deal with the event. After an increasing number of odd and shocking events, both they and father Steve (Gabriel Byrne) along with son Peter (Alex Wolff) become ever more wrapped up in psychological disturbances, puncturing Annie’s strong willpower.

For this to be the product of first time director Ari Aster (who also wrote the script) is quite remarkable. His vision for this film, and the balance between an everpresent and creeping, thrumming tension and completely batshit shocks, is stronger than most experienced directors can manage. It’s likely that his ability to write the movie and then depict what he wanted has probably played a large part in this success too.

That tension I mentioned almost reverberates throughout, meaning you can’t get comfortable, and this feeling is only exacerbated when the film throws carefully planned shocks at you. I don’t mean jump scares, but shocks and developments that astound the viewer – one in particular, and the scenes that followed it, had me almost laughing in shock! There’s more of a sense of total uncertainty, only emboldened by the eerie and powerful performances Aster gets out of a committed cast.

His audacious decisions for the characters and the ways in which they believably behave in such mental circumstances emboldens how he visually puts it together. Annie’s job as a creator of miniature landscapes, so benign an artform, is unsettlingly shown merging real life and models and opening up avenues of theory about what is happening to the family, and in making even the mundane disturbing he unsettles you further.

A note of caution though: your mileage may vary on how you feel this film turns out. The shock I referred to is like a “sliding doors” moment, in that beyond that the movie takes some huge swings (particularly in the last 15 minutes) and might not be what people expected or wanted it all to be. I however thought it was brilliant and harked back to other movies of a similar ilk (and conclusion) from decades past, and Hereditary pays homage to some of these in quite grisly fashion.

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Technically the film is quite accomplished, with the main source of the thrumming tension quite literally an electronic hum bubbling away. This and other music from Colin Stetson does a great job of supporting the movie’s visual feasts lit by Pawel Pogorzelki, with the family home a dark, wooden sprawl that becomes steadily more foreboding.

Instantaneous cuts between night and day, the glow of fire or bright light against wood and the piercing blaze of spotlights on models all end up appearing incredibly sinister in context, and while Pogorzelki’s cinematography illuminates the scares, Stetson’s atypical horror soundtrack doesn’t often adhere to expectations on the same note. In fact, it’s quite understated, which somehow adds to the unnatural feeling the film creates, while the use of silence (thought not to be topped after A Quiet Place) is very clever too.

The lead performance from Toni Collette is an utter barnstormer, the Australian actress living every emotion possible and (I can’t believe I’m saying this for a horror movie) strongly portrays the mental degradation of an intense mother, wife and daughter amid the crises that seem to pile upon her.

Collette is particularly good when events start to blur the line between real and imagined, or fantasy, and her switches from sympathetic sadness to incandescent rage were more frightening than some of the scares! She effortlessly sweeps back into horror (she was in The Sixth Sense) and gives the genre one of its best performances, I think it’s fair to say.

Gabriel Byrne, another surprise entrant to horror films, grants his understated and calm ‘straight man’ role as Steve a slightly defeated, crumpled air, with this man just wanting his family to be able to live a normal life. His air of realism and disdain eventually begins to crumble, the actor sweeping in with some of that rage and anger he’s become known for.

Both performers for the couple’s children are remarkable as well, Alex Wolff adding texture to incredulous reactions to all going on around him, portraying burning grief in some sympathetic scenes before becoming wrapped up in the insanity to come. It’s Milly Shapiro as the couple’s daughter Charlie however who truly stands out.

Her strikingly distinctive features are used to unnerving effect, and the young actress manages to be genuinely disturbing in her mannerisms and actions – you won’t hear a tongue click in the same way again. The most notable member of the largely ignored remainder is Ann Dowd, playing against type (she is Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale) as a sympathetic, caring new friend for Annie who has secrets of her own.

What’s clear to me, despite not being too “scared” of Hereditary, is that it’s not only strange and unique, but a very different way to approach a horror movie. It twists genre expectations to excellent effect, and makes use of some excellent performances to add an air of sophistication to its tension and latter insanity. Horror movies are finally growing up!

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