In his first feature film, Hereditary, director Ari Aster sets the disorienting tone of the entire movie in the very first shot. It’s a glacial pan around a room full of what appear to be dollhouses. We soon find out the protagonist, Annie Graham, is a miniaturist artist, and these tiny re-creations are her work. As Aster’s camera performs a delicate dolly, getting ever closer to one of the miniatures, we see sudden motion. A man walks through a dollhouse door. This space – at first a dollhouse representation of a bedroom – now fills the frame, and it inexplicably transforms into a new, full-sized setting. The man who walks through the door is Steve, Annie’s husband, and he’s waking their son, Peter, so that the family won’t be late for a funeral. Annie’s mother, Ellen, has died after suffering from a long period of dementia.
Aster’s perplexing and clever visual introduction tries to prepare us for the story that is about to unfold. Nothing in Hereditary is what it seems. One of the most exciting things about the movie is how many surprises it contains. Every time I thought I had a handle on where it was going, Aster peels back another layer. He keeps the unexpected revelations coming at a feverish pace right up until the final, terrifying last scene. What at the beginning promises to be a film about loss, grief, and family dysfunction – although Hereditary is about all that, too – by the last act becomes a fever dream of a horror film, and easily the scariest movie of the year.
In addition to Annie, Steve, and Peter, there is also Charlie, Annie and Steve’s 13-year-old daughter. Charlie is grief-stricken by the loss of her grandmother. Annie tries to comfort her daughter, telling Charlie that she was her grandmother’s favorite. As the movie digs beneath the first layer, we find out that while what Annie has said is true, it’s much more complicated than that. Annie is dealing with her own conflicting feelings about her dead mother, and she secretly joins a grief support group. Every time she leaves the house for a meeting, she tells Steve that she’s going to see a movie.
In the first of several wrenching scenes, Annie sobs as she tells the group about her emotionally manipulative and distant mother. Ellen only came back into Annie’s life when she found out she was sick, Annie says, and she immediately set about getting Charlie in her clutches, turning the girl against her mother. Strange things start to happen around the house. Both Annie and Charlie see spectral manifestations of Ellen.
Just when we think the rest of the movie will focus on Charlie’s strange connection to Ellen, Aster gives us a new layer in the form of a grisly, horrifying car accident. Annie and the rest of the family are faced with a new and searing round of grief in its wake.
Aster’s twisting and turning plot would be enough to make for a fascinating film, but the electrifying performances within it make this indie horror shocker even more mesmerizing. Worthy of particular praise is Toni Collette as Annie. One of the best actors of her generation, Collette carries the bulk of the emotional weight in Hereditary. Through her performance, she finds and illuminates so many subtle shades to her character. Collette displays a full spectrum of raw emotions here: grief, pain, resentment, and ultimately, naked terror. By the end, because of its inventive structure, Hereditary isn’t Annie’s story, but for much of the movie’s running time, Collette makes it hers. In many ways, this is a portrait of a woman coming unhinged, and Collette makes it uncomfortable to watch, yet impossible to look away.
Next to Collette, Alex Wolff, as teenager Peter, does the most in terms of emotional labor. The movie puts Peter through hell, and Wolff telegraphs with a great amount of skill both psychological torment and, towards the end of the picture, uncomprehending bewilderment. Gabriel Byrne delivers a somber, sotto voce performance as Annie’s husband, Steve. His world is falling apart, too, but Byrne imparts a stoical reserve to Steve’s handling of the situation. Newcomer Milly Shapiro is unsettling as Charlie. Distributor A24’s clever marketing campaign for Hereditary performed a certain legerdemain in selling the movie as a possessed child style horror movie. It’s not that (exactly), but Shapiro’s creepy performance provides plenty of fodder for chills.
The first shot of the movie – the one I described at the beginning of this review – hints at the exacting detail that Ari Aster employs. He’s able to build a sense of foreboding with that detail; it’s unsettling. Many of the sets throughout the movie, mostly the ones that take place in the Graham home, look like miniatures. I was never quite sure if that was a trick my mind was playing on me because of how the movie opens, or if Aster purposefully made the beds and chairs and tables look like dollhouse furniture in some way.
Aster’s editors, Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnston, use jarring cuts throughout the movie to keep us just a bit off balance. The most effective of these are several shots (an exterior of the Graham’s house, for example) filmed during the day that smash cuts to an identical shot, but in the darkness of night, or vice versa. These are striking stylistic choices, and they perfectly complement the story.
Lame and Johnston, in collaboration with Aster, make another beguiling editing choice that not only works in the moment, but makes more sense as we begin to unlock the mysteries of the plot. Peter sits in a car. Earlier, he convinced his mother to let him go to a party at a friend’s house, but he had to agree to take Charlie along in tow. After the first of what will be a multitude of horrific episodes in the film, the camera focuses on Peter’s face in extreme close-up in an unbearably long, unbroken take. In this moment, the filmmakers conjure something hypnotic. It’s not the last time they do so.
Aster is working in a genre that is known for its transgressive nature. One of the best examples of this is the horror classic Rosemary’s Baby. That’s a film to which Hereditary owes a big debt, especially when it comes to structure. Censorship codes were abandoned (in America, at least) over 50 years ago, and there are virtually no restrictions on what a filmmaker can put on screen, so it’s harder than ever to shock an audience. Ari Aster has managed to do it. By the end of the movie, as its revelations blossom, I got a sick glee out of participating in a work of art that is so devilishly transgressive. Hereditary is an unsettling, shocking experience. I can’t wait to see it again.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- This movie works on so many levels. It digs into some really ugly parts of the human psyche: grief, resentment, and fear. Don't forget fear. The last half-hour or so is terrifying. The final revelation in the last five minutes or so will give you goosebumps.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Every time I considered the miniatures while watching the movie, I kept thinking of Charlie Kaufman's brilliant 2008 film Synecdoche, New York. I've only seen it once, close to it's theatrical release, and much of it is hazy to me now. I just read the Wikipedia plot synopsis, and it doesn't say anything about miniatures, other than that the main character is building a replica of New York City inside a warehouse. Am I crazy to connect these two movies? I must revisit Synecdoche, New York soon.
- At one point in the movie someone says, "Punishment brings wisdom." A Google search tells me this is a quote from the Greek tragedy Antigone. I am in no way literate enough to make the connection between the movie and play, but if anyone out there is, please walk me through it in the comments section.
- Aster proves himself very adept at walking the fine line between leaving plot elements a mystery and over-explaining them. In the final act, he gave me just enough information to make me intrigued enough to do further research once I left the theater.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- This was an advance screening with some press, and some advance moviegoers. The crowd could not have been more into it. There is probably no higher compliment for a horror movie than a room full of adults laughing hysterically because they are so freaked out. It was an infectious feeling.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- My need for uplifting and positive messages is still strong. I have a feeling it will continue to be so until, at the very least, the year 2020. I've heard "uplifting" and "positive" are in good supply in the new documentary about everyone's favorite childhood television show host, Mr. Rogers. It's called Won't You Be My Neighbor. Barring some sort of new and horrifying revelation that the documentary might uncover about Fred Rogers, I'm assuming it will be a view into the kind of world I wish we all inhabited, instead of the stinking cesspool in which we currently find ourselves. Happy Friday, everyone!