8 out of 10
Alex Wolff – Peter
Directed by Ari Aster
A24 has a habit of making truly effective horror films, but when it comes to actually marketing and selling them, they tend to raise audience expectations on what they’re getting. Critic quotes like “The scariest movie in the past ____ years” don’t help, because horror fans take praise like that as a challenge. Movies like The Witch or It Comes At Night should be allowed to breathe on their own merits without measuring them on some ephemeral scale. Those films are quite good and disturbing, going for the slow burn until the final reveals, and for some horror fans, that may not be enough. Sure, A24 has to sell their genre films, and I can appreciate that, but throwing down words like “horror masterpiece” does the film a disservice, because when audiences sit down to Hereditary, they may already have their armor up, and if you want this film to do a number on you, you can’t spend a lot of your experience with it fighting it off.
Yes, Hereditary takes its time getting to where it wants to go. It’s a slow burn… until it isn’t. Then, director Ari Aster pulls everything out of a hat and does everything he can to scare the crap out of you. He wants to get under your skin but he also wants to jolt. It’s no surprise that Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne are co-producers on this: it’s a fine script, and without their support this film might have never gotten off the ground. It’s also a fragile film in that going in knowing too much will spoil a lot of the surprises.
Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother is dead. Annie’s relationship with her was complicated to say the least, and when she died, it feels like a weight has been lifted off the family. Although we never see what life with Annie’s mother was like, we can see the results – this is a family that seems to have suffered great abuse, especially Annie in trying to take care of her in her later years, probably more out of obligation than love. Annie’s husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) seems downright relieved. Annie and Steve’s special needs daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) seems to be the only family member who is upset by his loss, and Peter (Alex Wolff) just wants to escape, through weed or any other way. On the way home from a party, a tragic accident occurs with Peter and Charlie, and it’s best at this point to shut down on the synopsis, because this is when Hereditary gets… strange. There is a method to the madness, of course, and with Toni Collette’s remarkable performance as Annie as our guide, we are taken into dark and dreadful territory. The sense of unease and discordance is strong, and we are never sure of our bearings, but Aster seems very confident in the direction he wants to take us.
Ari Aster has made several shorts, but this is his first feature film, and this is a bold entrance on the horror scene. New voices keep the horror genre thriving, and Aster is no exception. Thematically, Hereditary dives into some dark places – the destruction of the American family, the damage parents have done to their children, the horrors of abuse and the disconnect it causes. Through all of this, Toni Collette is phenomenal. They don’t necessarily give awards for these kinds of performances because horror isn’t taken seriously by those in the Academy, but they should take a close look here.
We are with Annie through all her struggles, but we also, in the back of our mind, realize that Annie may be seriously damaged. What has her relationship with her mother done to her? Is what is happening around her real, or a terrible residue of her mental delusions? The movie does commit to the premise, but Aster also plays with our expectations until the last moments There aren’t any “cheats” in Hereditary, no last minute twist that puts everything in a realistic perspective. Aster has also taken the best things from films like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, and twists it to his liking, using every bit of our knowledge of those movies to subvert the message. He doesn’t pull punches with some of the gruesome images, either – one shot had me audibly gasp in the theater, and then Aster goes back to it and shoves our face into the grim, horrific imagery.
Let Hereditary wash over you. Don’t go in trying to crack it open, or try to be ahead of the movie. If you let this movie in, you may not be able to get it out. Films like Hereditary continue to shine a light at the fine work that independent horror cinema has been doing the past few years – smart films that can still frighten you in the best ways. Only time will tell how Hereditary is ultimately perceived, but as a feature film debut for Ari Aster, this is a triumph.