2018 | rated R | starring Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Gabrielle Byrne, Ann Dowd | written and directed by Ari Aster | 2hrs 7mins |
Studio Pitch: uhhh
By the end of Ari Aster’s astonishingly assured debut Hereditary we get to a final solution that isn’t the most original thing in the horror movie lexicon. It’s been done before, several times, by movies I won’t dare name to give anything away. Even so it’s been a very long time since we’ve seen this patchwork of horror ideas put together this well, because by the end of Hereditary we’ve been beaten and battered and horrified by it’s increasingly tight turns of the screw. It’s a powerful piece of work any way you slice it. When things get bonkers – and they get truly bloody bonkers – it’s more conventional genre bits have been given new life and justly earned by the 2 hours before it. But if you’re waiting for jump scares and ghosts appearing from bathroom mirrors, you’ve wandered into the wrong movie.
Watching this I was reminded of James Wan’s The Conjuring movies and how they approach horror differently. Where The Conjuring 2 forces Wan to think of more and more elaborate fake-outs and Rub Goldbergian misdirections to create the unexpected jump, the atmospheric Hereditary doesn’t need any of that. Aster wheels back and gives himself a wide runway to bring this thing slowly down on. He sets up and locks in each piece, each character and seemingly cosmic event with room to let it breathe. Hereditary serves as sort of a horror bridge between a more conventional Conjuring spook house film and a more nihilistic piece of abstract misery porn like – the movie Hereditary really reminded me of – Lars Von Trier’s AntiChrist.While this mix can be messy in lesser hands, Aster massages them together so they compliment each other, with the more conventional paranormal elements delivering the satisfying weirdness because the rest of the movie feels like being trapped in a car filling with water. Like AntiChrist the characters in this film don’t just seem cursed, they seem like cogs trapped in a massive gearbox fatefully grinding them toward unseen hopelessness and horror.
The film opens with the death of the grandmother of the Graham family and Annie’s (Toni Collette) difficult, estranged mother. Son Peter (Alex Wolff, great) doesn’t trust his mother because of a childhood sleepwalking incident and young sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro, great) thinks she is seeing the grandma she bonded with still lingering around the house. In this daze a cycle of misfortune happens that causes more death, more blame and a history of secrets, distrust and mental illness to bubbling up. The Grahams start to rip themselves apart by it. Aster knows the viciousness that a mother can doll out to her own son can be more shocking than a ghost in the attic. The central thrust of this film is a simple accident caused by a series of random events, something that could happen to anyone, and evolves into brooding, epic doom.
Way too often discussions of how a movie work get simplified into discussions of how the plot works. That’s part of the puzzle but hardly all of it; particularly with something as visual as horror were a filmmaker can play with the visuals and hide things in the frame for us to discover. While Aster lingers effectively on long takes of a character processing something shocking, I wouldn’t at all call the film a 70s slow burn horror film – it has far too much eviscerating family drama and too many decapitated heads way too early for that. It’s Don’t Look Now or a Ti West film, but filled with explosive family revelations where those movies burned slow with the every day mundane. If Hereditary had no supernatural elements in it at all, I would have still been riveted to it’s powerful first half domestic drama and the excellent performances by the entire cast. Toni Collette gives an arresting, guttural, Earth-shaking, award-worthy performance as a woman coming completely unglued by grief and the endless roadblocks to any hope from it. That’s not a revelation, Collette has always been a great talent, but she lets it all out here in an astonishing way. She is so raw here it is difficult to watch at times.
It’s all those nasty little touches where Hereditary transcends the genre. It’s beautifully shot with a classic filmmaker’s eye by Aster and perfectly scored (is that the Phillip Glass music from the Qatsi Trilogy in the film’s finale?) It isn’t just a great horror movie, it’s a great movie. It’s about death, grief, guilt and distrust. Subjects that a lot of horror movies skim the surface on, Hereditary dives deep into and wallows around in. This film is a wicked family drama with a ghostly icing on top. The script doles out these reveals at a steady clip, while immersing us in it’s character’s world. In Hereditary the journey is as compelling, if not moreso, than the destination. When it’s time for the supernatural rip cord to be pulled Aster enthusiastically pulls out every tool in the toolkit trying to make the be-all and end-all of haunted house films.
Hereditary is wonderfully horrifying and horrifyingly wonderful. I could go on and on about it. Debut films don’t get much better and more aware of the genre mechanics. Like many great things this horror show is not for most tastes. It is an expertly-crafted, not-easily-forgotten, totally absorbing symphony of misery that digs it’s claws in deep and doesn’t let go. One of the standout films of the year and surely going to be in the conversation of best horror movies for years to come.