Believe the hype: Hereditary — which rattled jaded audiences earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival — is an instant horror classic, a terrifying chronicle of the destruction of a family that also serves as an outstanding feature debut for writer/director Ari Aster. Like other assured filmmakers who work in the genre, Aster understands that horror works best as metaphor, and that the story and characters must function successfully on their own if the supernatural trappings are removed from the plot.
Hereditary passes that test with flying (if very dark) colors, delivering an emotionally devastating tale of grief, trauma and family dysfunction that is powerful on its own terms even without the macabre events that begin to plague the poor Graham clan.
In some way we never really know our parents, a realization that occurs to artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) who, while speaking at her recently deceased mother’s memorial service, acknowledges that the woman kept much of her private life to herself. But the departed Ellen’s presence still looms large over Annie, her psychotherapist husband Steven (Gabriel Byrne), their aimless son Peter (Alex Wolff), and their socially challenged daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro).
While to outsiders the Grahams would seem like a tight-knit if imperfect family, there’s a strange sense of disconnection between the four of them. It takes a shockingly unexpected wave of grief and tragedy to make Annie aware that her mother’s legacy may be affecting them in ways she didn’t think possible.
To say anything more than that would risk ruining some of the twists and turns that the plot of Hereditary takes, especially since Aster subtly changes it from one movie to another at least twice during the course of the narrative, invoking horror classics from the ‘60s and ‘70s along the way. But despite deploying an unrelenting arsenal of truly unsettling images, skin-freezing occurrences and tons of atmosphere, Aster’s focus on the characters at the heart of the story and the punishing emotional wreckage they experience never wavers, getting under the viewer’s skin just as much as the chillingly surreal waking-nightmare esthetic that permeates the film from start to finish.
Annie’s artistic canon consists of small dollhouse-like models in which she places tiny figures to represent real moments from life — such as the hospital room in which her dementia-addled mother spent her last days. The genius of what Aster does, in concert with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, is to create establishing shots in which one is initially not sure whether one is looking at one of the models or at an actual full-size space with living people in it. The result, of course, is the overriding impression that the Grahams are victims of forces beyond their control — and just how victimized they are becomes distressingly clear all too soon.
Collette is mesmerizingly raw and vulnerable as Annie in a performance that is easily worth an Oscar nomination if the voters would treat acting in horror films as seriously as they take it in every other genre. As the family’s emotional and physical defenses are worn down, Annie’s longstanding frustrations and disappointments come to the fore, and it’s shattering to hear her express things that one never thinks a parent should vocalize.
Byrne has the less commanding role, but he effectively portrays the sadness of a man trying to hold his family together while quietly processing his own anguish. Wolff and Shapiro are also quite good in roles that would challenge any young actor: the former’s Peter journeys from apathy to desperation as any semblance of security crumbles around him, while Shapiro brings a disturbing eeriness to Charlie without the usual “creepy child” tropes.
As Annie seeks outside help at a grief counseling group — where she meets a sympathetic fellow traveler named Joan (Ann Dowd, excellent as usual) — the rest of the family turn inward, and it’s the cracks in the façade of their lives together that finally split open and allow the true horror to invade. Aster, Pogorzelski and the rest of the production team (with the help of avant-garde composer Colin Stetson, who also does phenomenal work) create an atmosphere of suffocating dread and tension, setting the viewer up perfectly for the barrage of horror that is to come.
But even when it goes for some more standard shocks, Hereditary never feels cheap or contrived. Even the plot’s final reveal, which requires more of a leap of belief than what has come before, at least feels like it pays off the clues that have been laid out earlier even if it comes a little out of left field. Nevertheless, Hereditary still has much to say about how ancestry and trauma can affect human beings in ways they may not see coming. It’s those rich themes and fully fleshed-out characterizations that make us care what’s happening and make it that much more terrifying.
Aster demonstrates mostly remarkable control of his material and his tools, creating a slow burn horror movie that feels both unhurried and like it’s hurtling its characters toward a destiny they can’t avoid. By the time Hereditary is over, you’ll be so shaken you’ll wish you’d never met the Grahams — but to our horror, they could just as easily be any of us.
Hereditary is out in theaters Friday (June 8).