Monday, October 1, 2018

31 Days of Horror 2018: Hereditary

Directed by Ari Aster.
2018. Rated R, 127 minutes.
Toni Collette
Alex Wolffe
Milly Shapiro
Gabriel Byrne
Ann Dowd

The Grahams are a family in grief. Matriarch Annie (Collette) has just lost her own mom. Even though the two weren't terribly close, Annie is still having a hard time coping. Before long, she's seeing her mom everywhere she looks. Matters aren't helped by the fact that her mom's grave has been desecrated. Annie joins a support group where we find out her side of the family has a history of mental illness. Her husband Steve (Byrne) seems to be dealing with things quite a bit better. Together, they also have a son, Peter (Wolff), and a daughter, Charlie (Shapiro). When Peter wants to go to a party, he's given the worst condition possible to teenage ears - he has to take his little sister with him. He does, and from there, things really spiral out of control.

Ari Aster writes and directs. It's his directorial debut and you'd never know it just by watching it. He's completely confident in the effectiveness of his story and it shows. Rather than let loose a thousand jump scares to get viewers into it, or rushing his film to it's hectic finale, he takes his time building dread. Instead of trying to be scary, his film is content, and intent, on being creepy. And it's better for it. If you go in looking for a mile-a-minute gore-fest, you'll disappointed. If you settle in and pay attention, well, you might not be settled for long. Things in this film tend to crawl beneath the skin. The heavy tone of it all keeps us in the film, trying the best we can to roll with whatever punches are coming. However, the real kicker is that no matter how many supernatural things appear to be going on, they're grounded in something we can relate to, even if only tangentially, mental illness. Adding the title of the film to that mix makes it all the more potent. What if the problems of ancestors we thought to be crazy were passed on to us? How would it affect us and our families? How would we deal with it? Can it even be dealt with?

The vessel through which Aster creates our angst (relates his?) is Toni Collette. She spends most of the film drawing us in. Once she ensnares us, she doesn't let go of us. More accurately, we won't let go of her even though we know we should. She earns our empathy early and keeps it even as we are actively recoiling from her. Collette kneads us into an impressionable dough and pretzels our emotions. It's an astonishing piece of acting. Hopefully, it transcends genre once awards season rolls around.

Collette is far from alone in her excellence. While the ever-reliable Gabriel Byrne doesn't really make much of an impression, Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro as Peter and Charlie, respectively, do. In Byrne's case, his shortcoming is a byproduct of one of the script's few flaws. He's simply the clueless dad. Wolff is asked to do more, and he handles it very well. However, he's outshone by Shapiro. Her demeanor and dour disposition just oozes "creepy kid" in the best way possible. She also has two of the film's most memorable elements. One I won't spoil, but it has little to do with her abilities. The other is all her. It's her delivery of a simple clicking noise. Outdoing them both is Ann Dowd as the lady from the support group who befriends Annie. We can see her character arc coming, but she still makes it work.

Keeping Byrne's character a mere trope is a drawback to the screenplay, there is a bigger one. The direction taken by the last act is awfully reminiscent of The Witch. In some spots, it feels like the good people at A24 simply changed the setting from that movie's 17th century to the modern day as it hits many of the same beats. Admittedly, this is only a problem if you've seen The Witch. If not, you'd have no clue what I was talking about. Luckily, even if you did Hereditary manages to separate itself. Where The Witch goes hard after the effects of religious fanaticism on the family, Hereditary looks deeply at nature vs. nurture. The burdens of our ancestors weigh heavily on us. This film makes that point in spades.


  1. I haven't seen this yet but I can't wait to see it, specifically for Shapiro as she's been praised by everyone for her performance. Nice review!

    1. She is very good. Can't wait for your opinion on it.

  2. I just found out the film is available at my local library. I hope to check it out.

  3. Great review! I really enjoyed this and I didn't see that bit with Charlie after the party coming at all. The previews really made me think it would go in a different direction.

    1. Nope, I didn't see that one coming, either.

  4. GAH THIS MOVIE. Collette and Wolff are ridiculously, insanely good. The scene after the incident where it's just Wolff sitting in the car is one of the best pieces of acting I've seen all year, to say nothing of the interplay between the two of them in that dinner scene. I don't think I will ever get the sound Collette's cries of anguish out of my head. I particularly liked what you said about her performance pretzeling our emotions; SO TRUE.

    And Ann fucking Dowd. It should just be a rule in all movies and TV shows now: NEVER TRUST ANN DOWD.

    Everything about this movie was so well done for maximum creepiness - the score, the set design, the cinematography... I love it. So glad you did, too.

    1. So true. I think I've undersold Wolff's performance. And Collette...just wow.

      That's a good rule to live by.

      And maximum creepiness was achieved.