After a number of short films, writer-director Ari Aster has burst into the realm of feature films with one hell of a debut. The buzz has been growing increasingly louder since horror-drama Hereditary screened at Sundance in early 2018, and with very, very good reason. This assured piece of filmmaking aims to unsettle, and does so almost relentlessly for a bit over two hours.
Aussie actress Toni Collette gives what may be her best performance yet as Annie Graham, a mother in for one shocking development after another. Her kids, peculiar young girl Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and teenage boy Peter (Alex Wolff), and husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), aren’t about to fare any better. We meet the Grahams following the death of the family matriarch. It’s clear that this lady wasn’t easy to get along with, but her absence is nevertheless felt strongly by Annie and Charlie, the latter of whom had more of a bond with her grandmother. And then things start getting dramatic and increasingly creepy. There are forces at work.
The narrative moves along at a surprisingly measured pace, so those entering Hereditary expecting non-stop scares and shocks may be in for a bit of a surprise. In fact, a decent amount of the film plays out more like a grim, tense family drama, although Aster concocts moments and visuals that constantly hint at malevolent machinations at play. Is it scary? Yes, quite, although this is referring more to the picture’s consistent, unnerving tone, with sporadic moments of nightmarish imagery. That is until the final act, where the dread that’s been building and building reaches a hellish crescendo that will etch itself onto your brain.
Aster’s screenplay manages to avoid tiring us out with its gloomy turns by keeping things character based, focusing on our character’s emotions – as downbeat as they are – as much as their actions. And the cast is completely up to the task, every one of them immersing themselves in sombre roles. Byrne is on point as a father and husband struggling to maintain his sanity and to keep his emotions measured as things fall apart around him, young Shapiro shows she’s one to look out for as Charlie, and Wolff showcases a fantastic turn as Peter, completely convincing and devastating as a young man on a merciless spiral. But it’s Collette that stands high here, lending her scenes true weight with an absolutely exhausting, highly emotional performance; it’s Oscar-worthy.
Aster has a talented team keeping things on a consistent wavelength. Colin Stetson’s (Blue Caprice) score is key, driving up the nervy tension without calling much attention to itself and peaking nicely when the moment calls, and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski keeps the frame filled with potent imagery, wanting you to search the screen for sinister elements you may be missing.
Alas, there are a few minor setbacks. Although the jabs hit hard for much of the film, Hereditary may be a touch on the lengthy side, taking its measured first half and stretching it just that bit too long before arriving at the sinister reveals. There’s also a slight misstep towards the close, a key bit of information spelled out in obvious fashion after much subtlety and mystery. And while the film is more about the atmospheric, distressing build-up than it is about fresh plot points, those well versed with horror movies won’t find many of the film’s latter plot turns to be all that original. Again, minor setbacks.
Hereditary grabs you in its vice and doesn’t let you go until you are wincing, laughing nervously, letting out a breath as the credits roll. And then, much later, when you least expect it, you’ll find yourself remembering certain scenes, its images still playing out in the recesses of your mind.