The horror genre contains multitudes, and in recent years talented young filmmakers have been working within the confines of “horror” to craft some of the most affecting, thematically rich, and gorgeously crafted films in recent memory. That’s certainly the case with Hereditary, the feature debut of writer/director Ari Aster, which not only manages to be deeply horrifying, but also stands as a genuinely great family drama as well. Led by an award-worthy performance from Toni Collette, Hereditary digs deep under your skin and refuses to leave, offering up one of the most uncomfortable—yet ultimately satisfying—moviegoing experiences of the year.
Hereditary begins with a funeral. Collette plays Annie Graham, an artist specializing in miniature diorama-like sculptures who lives at home with her husband (Gabriel Byrne), two children (Alex Wolff and breakout star Milly Shapiro) and, until recently, her mother. It’s established that Annie had a complicated relationship with her secretive mother, who apparently suffered from mental illness and had a tragic family life of her own. Annie and her mother weren’t exactly on speaking terms when she moved in with Annie’s family, and while Annie refused to let her mother anywhere near her first-born son Peter (Wolff) when he was born, her mother sparked immediately to Annie’s daughter Charlie (Shapiro).
Charlie takes her grandmother’s passing hard, while Annie’s feelings are a bit more complicated (she flat-out asks her husband if she should be sadder). Nevertheless, this death has strong reverberations in other ways, as odd happenings begin to occur, particularly involving Charlie. To say more would be to ruin the film’s twists and turns, but basically for the first hour and fifteen minutes or so, Hereditary is a pretty straightforward family drama with some serious spooks here and there. And then… well, it’s best to experience what happens next knowing as little as possible.
Collette delivers a downright haunting turn as Annie, imbuing the character with a layered complexity that can be read a number of ways. Collette is put through the wringer in terms of what Aster’s haunting screenplay asks of her, and she delivers phenomenally. It’s flat-out one of the best performances of the year, vacillating between deeply disturbing and emotionally devastating, and you find yourself hanging on Annie’s every word, never quite sure what to expect next.
Indeed, Collette is the heart and soul of the film, as Hereditary is first and foremost about family. It’s certainly horrifying and delivers some jaw-dropping frights, but as with all the best films in the genre, the film’s story and characters are rooted in universal truths. Aster aims to explore how we handle traits that are passed down from parents to children that we maybe don’t want, or don’t know how to reconcile, or maybe even refuse to believe we carry. Families are complicated, and while Hereditary is a decidedly extreme version of family dysfunction, it never rings false on an emotional level.
Thankfully, the cast is more than up to the challenge of keeping the film’s emotional truth grounded as the story gets more and more complex. Shapiro, who first broke out as the lead in the Broadway production of Matilda, handles an incredibly complicated character like a pro. Byrne layers the family patriarch with sensitivity and a desire to understand, even as the family begins falling apart. And Wolff transcends the “moody teenager” archetype to flesh out a somewhat broken young man just trying to find his way.
The performances are key in a film like Hereditary because Aster opts to frame the film in many long takes without lots of cuts. This brilliantly adds to the tension that underlines the entire affair, as the lack of cutting doesn’t give the audience a chance to breathe, and the performers rise to the occasion with what are essentially emotional set pieces rather than set pieces anchored by stunts or explosions. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski gorgeously captures the scenes with lots of ominous low light and a framing that seeks to mimic the look of the miniature houses Annie crafts in her workspace, and you feel that each shot has been meticulously assembled to amplify the performances on screen.
By the time the film kicks into high gear horror-wise, Aster has already filled the preceding story with the maximum amount of dread, so the audience is prepared for absolutely anything to happen next. The key, and where Hereditary rises from a mere “scary movie” to a true work of art, is Aster’s intense focus on grounding the story in emotion. Indeed, Collider’s own Haleigh Foutch likened the experience of watching Hereditary to experiencing the final scene in Frank Darabont’s The Mist stretched out to feature length. It’s a very special brand of emotional terrorism on the part of Aster that is intensely effective, to the point that I wanted to walk out of the theater during one specific scene because it made me so upset.
That’s a testament to the meticulousness of Aster’s filmmaking, and while some scenes in the latter half of the film stretch on a bit too long, and the third act takes some leaps that may or may not lose you, it’s impossible to say Hereditary is lazy, cheap, or derivative filmmaking. It’s one of the most horrifying moviegoing experiences I can recall, and emotionally upsetting on an intense level. To watch Hereditary is to feel horror in absolutely every sense of the word.