Updated: Feb 6, 2020
Annie’s mother has died. They did not have a good relationship. Annie is struggling with how to grieve. This has a strong effect on her loving husband, Steve, her distracted teenage son, Peter, and her young daughter, Charlie, grandma’s favorite, who seems to be living in her own world. At first, they just appear sad, which puts additional pressure on their already strained relationships. Then, some truly alarming events make it clear things are very wrong in this family. This is the vague plot outline of Hereditary, an extremely intense horror movie that starts out dark and only gets creepier as it goes on.
I have mentioned before that tone is the most important component of a successful horror film. Sure, the filmmakers could use shock cuts, jump scares and buckets of gore to rattle their audience. Some of them are able to do that pretty well. But a few films in the genre go deeper. They get in your head using atmosphere. Even if there is nothing especially scary about what is happening onscreen, you can feel something bad is going on. Hereditary is very much that kind of horror. It is not what happens, it is how it happens and how the filmmakers choose to show it that is so disturbing. Though what happens here is plenty disturbing on its own.
This is the feature directorial debut for Ari Aster, who also wrote the screenplay. He made six short films before this and they certainly seem to have helped him because this is about as assured a first feature as you can find. From the opening frame, this film knows precisely what it is. It never veers from its tone of ever increasing dread. The most surprising part of his direction is his use of restraint. If you have seen Hereditary, restraint might appear like an odd word choice considering some of the visuals on display. But Aster holds off on presenting his strongest visuals until they are the most impactful. For much of the way, he builds tension using sounds and reaction shots. He realizes that, sometimes, what we imagine is scarier than what he can show us. Nevertheless, he always seems to know the exact right time to put something horrifying on the screen.
As great as Aster’s work is, he is given a big assist by the committed performances from his main cast. Gabriel Byrne, as the husband, brings a calm presence to the story. He starts off quiet and caring, so, when he gets upset, it adds even more tension. The little girl is played by the debuting Milly Shapiro as someone who may understand her family better than they do. She is nicely creepy. Alex Wolff is excellent as the confused Peter. At the beginning, he comes off as a normal, cynical, teenage boy. As things escalate, so does his fear. There are two scenes in particular, one that takes place in a car and the other right at the end, where Wolff has to wear all of his emotions on his face and he is just fantastic.
Speaking of fantastic, there is no way this movie would have worked nearly as well as it does without the lead performance from Toni Collette. She runs the full gamut of emotions and is absolutely amazing. Her character is responsible for a lot of the heavy lifting as far as uncovering secrets and advancing the plot. Collette plays it with the utmost seriousness. This may be “only a genre film,” but what she has to do here is very challenging and she delivers perhaps the best performance of a really solid career.
Hereditary (123 minutes without the end credits) is absorbing as it goes along, yet it is the rare film that becomes more remarkable (and terrifying) once it is over and you can see the whole picture. As good as the acting and directing are, the screenplay is possibly the most notable thing about it. It is shockingly subtle, smart and creative. All of the pieces are there, with clues strewn throughout. When everything came together I was stunned, unsettled and impressed. This is definitely not a movie for everybody; it will haunt you. However, if my description intrigues you, go see it. Now. It feels too early to call this a masterpiece, though it may deserve that designation. At the very least, Hereditary is quite extraordinary.
4¾ out of 5
Toni Collette as Annie
Alex Wolff as Peter
Gabriel Byrne as Steve
Milly Shapiro as Charlie
Ann Dowd as Joan
Written and Directed by Ari Aster