Film Review: Hereditary

Through a traumatic story of familial grief, debuting director Ari Aster has pulled off a relentless horror film, possibly a new genre classic, with scares for the ages.
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Domestic dread comes in claustrophobic packages in the attics and tree houses of Ari Aster’s assured feature debut Hereditary, inhabited by the grim aftermath of an unspeakable tragedy. In this terrifying horror film centered on grief, with scares that rival the familial chills of Rosemary’s Baby and The Conjuring, the cavernous walls of an upper-class suburban home in the Pacific Northwest close in on a family whose members lay bare deep scars when traumatic circumstances put each of them to the test. Like many of the genre greats, Hereditary mines its terror not in hollow screams, but in deep, credible characters with only bad options to choose from—the nagging fear of “This could be me” never fully leaves your mind.

Hereditary opens with an establishing shot of meticulously designed interiors—soon, we recognize that the neatly compartmentalized house is a realistic model. (Let your imagination run wild in deciphering the metaphors of this intricate miniature.) The builder is gallery artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette), whose mother joins the dearly departed in the early moments of the film, leaving Annie with complicated repercussions. In a seemingly happy marriage with Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and a mother of two—loose-limbed teenager Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro), a strangely distressed kid with an eerie mouth cluck—Annie unwillingly joins a bereavement support group to cope with her mother’s departure.

We don’t ever get the sense that her uncompromising parent was a beloved matriarch—if anything, Annie talks about her passing as a relief, a giant weight off her shoulders. Meanwhile, we feel a growing trepidation towards her death-obsessed daughter Charlie, whose ominous presence beyond her tics and nut allergy creates increasingly unsettling moments. When disaster descends on Annie’s tribe once again and irreparably ends their stability, an unfortunate Graham inheritance announces itself and a mysterious character played by Ann Dowd enters the story, moving the film in earnest towards a supernatural direction.

Collette gives an absolutely heroic performance in the role of the disgruntled mother. Annie undoubtedly loves her offspring, but, not unlike The Babadook’s exhausted and ghostly Amelia, she can’t shake off a hidden (then open) frustration as a woman burdened by her maternal role. In a searing scene set around the dinner table (the scariest place for any family harboring unspoken grudges), Aster ruthlessly pulls off the band-aid and lets the truth bleed out of Annie’s distressed eyes and poisonous words. In a career-best performance—a mature evil twin of her feat in The Sixth Sense—Collette loses herself physically and emotionally in this severe character plagued by grief. Shapiro and Wolff also make solid impressions as an uncanny youngster (her clucks will keep you up at night) and a guilt-ridden teen mired in culpability, respectively. As for Ann Dowd, let’s just say that her forceful “Handmaid’s Tale” presence is put to menacing use here. Beware!

Aster’s confident short films (especially The Strange Thing About the Johnsons) signaled his thematic interests and the cinematic precision of Hereditary—it’s no surprise that his first feature is a watertight, instant genre classic, elevated by detailed production design and creepy camera moves. If he over-explains his symbols and complicates the film’s mythology a touch, don’t hold it against him—you will still leave Hereditary with shaken insides and an inexplicable lump in your throat. In fact, the fate of the Grahams will haunt anyone who’s ever felt ambivalent about or disturbed by their family roots. If that sounds like you, then you’re in for the rarest kind of nightmare: one that may make you feel a little less alone at first, but then alarmingly less safe.

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