Hereditary is many things – a moving family drama, a chance for terrific actors to show their stuff, an impeccably lensed mood piece, and a creepy-as-hell rumination on guilt and dealing with madness. What it’s not is a run-of-the-mill horror flick, dealing in schlock in order to shock. This is both the film’s greatest gift and perhaps its curse, for its not likely to sate those wanting something from the film it’s not. This might be too horrifying for general audiences, while too much a character piece to speak to some looking for the kinetic thrills of many films of this ilk.
First, there’s an absolute ace performance from Toni Collette. Her shifts in tone provide the dramatic backbone of the piece, and from her most subtle reactions to when she goes full bore it’s a thrill to watch. Gabriel Byrne also does a lot with little moments, riding out the waves of turmoil in perfect attenuation with the plot. In a small role Ann Dowd performs as admirably as always, bringing her trademark commitment to the piece.
Kudos as to the two younger performers, including the awkward Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and her older brother Peter (Alex Wolff). The brother/sister dynamic is strained from the outset, and the way the two play off together anchors the film allowing for the events in the film’s second half to play off and even more electric.
The opening shot tracks among the miniature vignettes that are Annie’s (Collete) art project. As the camera is drawn into one of the miniatures we see the inside of Peter’s room, a transition that’s both surreal and effective in setting things slightly off kilter.
The tiny scenes recreate the life of Annie and her family, coming across in some ways like Frances Glessner Lee’s “Nutshells”, small recreations of crime scenes that served as the foundation for modern forensic science. It’s a wonderful visual metaphor used to full extent, and makes the events of the film feel at once theatrical and believable at the same time.
The film builds quietly but persistently, paying off with truly effective and scintillating bursts of malice and dread. Hereditary feels very much in keeping with gothic chamber dramas that delve into the darkness without the need for jumpscare after jumpscare to make things workable. In fact, some of the more overt of these elements that usually would be the bread and butter of this type of genre piece seem purposely undercut through revealing hidden characters through the use of camera motion. The goal here is to get under your skin, not blast you with scare after scare, and thanks to precise direction and gifted editing it very much effectively creeps the hell out of you.
With a two hour running time and a first two acts that build slowly yet precisely, this is also a film that’s a challenge when screened as part of the Midnight selection. Yet for those with patience enough to go along with the film’s journey there’s so much to be rewarded with. You’ve got an absolute primo performance from Collette and a spooky piece that by any dispassionate reading should elevate her take here as her prime contribution to the genre, allowing us to background the overbaked Sixth Sense that received undue attention.
For a debut feature this is all the more remarkable, and while Writer/Directory Ari Aster’s film echoes other works it still very much takes its own path. While the mood ofHereditary borrows from the likes of Kubrick and Polanski, as well as some of the stylization from the likes of Argento, the end result is a perfectly crafted modern film that immediately feels a classic to be treasured. This is a film demanding of general audiences but very much one that they should seek out, finding in the work something truly effective as it delves into family tragedies in myriad forms.
An exercise in dramatic tension, character drama and creepy, cultish horror, Hereditary is a fascinating hybrid that nourishes our desires to be entertained, thrilled and emotionally impacted all at once.
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