Hereditary is terrifying. That’s it. Review over.
*sigh*… Ok. I’m calm now. Let’s do this.
Hereditary is written and directed by Ari Aster and stars Toni Collette, Milly Shapiro, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd and Gabriel Byrne.
The latest cinematic venture from production company A24 sees the official debut of writer/director Ari Aster in a film about Annie, a mother struggling to balance her work and her family, as well as coping with the sudden death of her own mother. After her mother’s passing, Annie begins to unravel a number of threads about her familial history, leading to unspeakable horrors, dire consequences, and secrets that are best kept in the family.
I am going to keep this review completely spoiler-free for reasons that’ll become clear in my editorial this week.
As one who doesn’t often partake in the viewing of horror films, even I can say that I was completely stunned by Hereditary. It is absolutely nothing short of haunting. Newcomer Aster brings such a tense and chilling direction to each sequence of frames placed throughout the entire film, making for a true cinematic experience on all fronts. I was frozen in my seat for practically the entire film. The camera wanders amidst the family household like an untamed spirit, despairingly unraveling one horrific moment after the next. Trust me, you’re in good hands.
This film also has one of the best casts I’ve seen in a horror film. Toni Collette’s performance in this film shows us what it’s like to be a mother in grieving, all while she chaotically loses her mind in the course of the film’s three acts. Alex Wolff’s Peter is given a solid amount of screentime and narrative presence, and Wolff in turn largely delivers on many fronts, giving his talents to some of the film’s more intense and emotional moments.
In what is apparently her debut performance, Milly Shapiro completely steals this entire film. She takes what little dialogue and background we’re given on her character, Charlie, and gives an unnerving and uncomfortably precise portrayal of one of the film’s most mysterious characters. I was motionless every time Shapiro was onscreen, witnessing long, nearly-silent takes of one of the most terrifying performances I think I’ve ever seen.
As briefly touched on before, this film also tells its story in quite a way that I’ve never really seen before in a horror film. In the case of many horror films, omniscience is everything. We as an audience can tend to know vital bits of information about the characters, the world they live in, their situation, their aggressor(s), and other nuggets of narrative significance. From the first frame of this film’s opening, you have absolutely no idea what’s going on, and that’s never a bad thing. You’re never left out or confused, but rather handed the perspective of the characters. You find things out as the characters do, and you react to the film’s worst and most shocking moments the same way the characters do. You’re truly made to feel as though you are experiencing this film, not just simply viewing it. And most importantly, at no point does this film ever try to hold your hand through its many twists, turns, and shocks. It knows why you’re here, and respects you as such.
The film also strays from contemporary horror cinema in that it is truly genuine in its purpose: to scare you. Never does it rely on cheap thrills or jumpscare surprises to omit panicked shrieks, but rather plays on the worst fears of the audience, deconstructing the darkest parts of our own psyches. Aster’s tense and deep-cutting buildup gives way to moments of pure horror, like a mental exercise of volcanic proportions. I was out of breath and exhausted by the time the credits were rolling. Psychological horror is the name of the game here, making for a film that I am quite literally never going to forget.
As far as any problems I had with this film, they’re actually quite few and far between. While I love the methodic and unique way in which this film tells its story, there are a few points around the middle and through the second act in which this film can really tend to take its time. The film’s slower moments do serve narrative purposes, but may stick out a little bit upon future rewatches. And despite the excellent cast in this film, some of the characters do tend to take a backseat to the main players at times. Gabriel Byrne’s Steve, while well acted, isn’t given much depth compared to the rest of his family. Ann Dowd’s Joan serves as one of this film’s best characters, and gives an unsettlingly twisted performance, she’s just not in the film nearly as much as I would’ve liked. That’s about the extent of the damage.
Hereditary is unnerving. It is uncomfortable. It is intense, it is impactful, and it’s one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year. Aster brings the top of his game to his debut, and even made a little wimp like me enjoy my time at a horror film. I’m very happy to give Hereditary an A.