Hereditary (2018) Directed by Ari Aster. Starring Toni Collette, Milly Shapiro and Gabriel Byrne. In the wake of a gruesome tragedy, a family is torn apart by loss and seemingly under attack by mysterious and malevolent forces related to a recently deceased loved one.
Very mild spoilers below. It’s best to see this one knowing nothing.
After the death of her estranged 78-year-old mother Ellen, miniature model artist Annie Graham is supported in her loss by her husband Steven (Gabriel Byrne) and their two children: teenage slacker Peter (Alex Wolff) and odd daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). To a certain extent, Annie is not only grieving but mystified. Her mother was such a secretive and private person that her relationship with her own offspring suffered. They didn’t quite know each other, although Ellen was absolutely obsessed with Charlie and doted on the little girl during her infancy.
We learn bits of the strange history of the Graham family through the incredibly detailed models Annie creates, which grow increasingly disturbing in their subject matter as the story progresses.
No sooner has Annie gone to a Grief Counseling support group, than the family is hit with another loss. This one is much more profound and cracks the foundations of Annie’s being. She struggles to hold on while her husband attempts to keep the family moving forward. At the support group, she meets kindly older woman Joan. They bond over the fact that Joan’s 7-year-old grandson Louis drowned earlier in the year, prompting Joan to seek out the group. Annie is then introduced to the concept of using the techniques of a spiritual medium to contact her deceased loved ones. Joan claims to have communicated with Louis and wants to provide the same joy to her new friend. It turns out there’s very little joy to be had, as bizarre and possibly supernatural events begin rattling Annie’s already fragile grip on reality.
Has Annie fallen prey to encroaching madness, or is something evil actually trying to destroy her family?
The idea of a potential conspiracy of insidious evil threatening wholesome folks dates back to the slow burn horror mystery and melodrama of 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” 1973’s “The Wicker Man” and 1976’s “The Omen.”
“Hereditary” may have a modern surface sheen and outstanding visual effects, but it felt like a wonderfully paranoid throwback to those days of intellectual adult horror.
You aren’t sure who is to be trusted and keep your eyes peeled for interesting things happening in the background of certain scenes.
When I first saw the trailers for “Hereditary,” I wondered if it would be a psychological portrait of a family in the grip of madness fueled by grief or feature an actual supernatural entity to be dealt with. My point being, the promotional materials for the film preserve that ambiguity. They don’t give away the nature of the threat or even what horror subgenre it falls under. It’s refreshing to walk into a theatre without a fully formed roadmap of what to expect.
It is not, as it turns out, one of those frustratingly vague horror pictures where you are left to decide for yourself what is happening. It’s clearly spelled out, though it pays to stay focused. There’s a key scene about halfway through involving the contents of a book that amplifies the ending’s power when all the pieces fall into place.
One of Hereditary’s major strengths is in the remarkable performances. Toni Collette, the mother of the boy who saw dead people in “The Sixth Sense,” should be nominated for an Academy Award for her mesmerizing work as Annie. She runs the full emotional gamut from serenity to outright rage. Gabriel Byrne plays the quiet, mellow Steve to perfection. He’s low key, but incredibly relatable as he attempts to stave off the crazed antics of his wife. Milly Shapiro is eerie and vulnerable as Charlie, the character that has been the central focus of the trailers due to her flat gaze and the curious clucking sound she makes with her tongue.
And lastly, Alex Wolff is fantastic as Peter, an ordinary kid who just wants to pursue his crush and party with his friends.
Good luck with that, buddy.
“Hereditary” contains one of my favorite gut-punch moments in recent memory, and the technique used in the scene was obviously designed to elicit the strongest emotional response. Without going into spoilery detail, a character finds out something has gone terribly wrong and though we hear them reacting to it, we only see a closeup of Peter’s face onscreen as he absorbs the shock. It’s followed by a sickening image that you won’t soon forget. I love that idea of telling the story through the character’s facial expressions alone as a close up shot prevents us from seeing exactly what’s happening.
It’s not a gory film by any means, but there are some violent and unsettling moments.
Ari Aster’s film has been compared to “The Witch,” “It Follows” and “The Babadook” in that it’s part of a wave of brainy horror cinema that eschews the simplicity of another batch of summer camp teens being slaughtered in favor of richer and more original material. It’s not just what it’s specifically about that truly matters. It’s about how it’s made. It’s about directors and writers with unique vision creating something that doesn’t fit in with the corporate horror product. “Hereditary” is a film that could only have been made by artists with a singular creative vision. Highly recommended.