Following in the footsteps of The Witch and It Comes at Night, Hereditary is A24’s new widely buzzed about horror film. Drawing a flurry of positive comparisons to The Exorcist, the film has already been ordained as a modern horror classic by numerous critics and viewers. The film has been a tremendous success, particularly given that it was piloted by thirty year old writer/director Ari Aster as his first feature film. Aster is one in a line of young filmmakers who have launched themselves into prominence with surprising horror hits.
Hereditary is a dark and atmospheric horror about a family onto which misfortune seems to fall time and time again. Toni Collette plays Annie, the matriarch of the family. The film opens on the morning of her mother’s funeral and it becomes quickly apparent that Annie’s connection with her mother was fraught. Her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) on the other hand is devastated at the loss of the woman with whom she seems to have had a profound connection. It becomes quickly apparent that Charlie is a social outcast, and it is implied that she shares an interest in the supernatural with her late grandmother. Annie’s son Peter (Alex Wolff) is a much more typical teenager whose interests lie almost solely in dating, attending parties, and some slightly-more-than-casual drug use. Annie’s relationship with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) seems solid in the film’s opening, but quickly becomes more tense and difficult.
One unique feature of the film is the focus on Annie’s career. She is an artist who creates miniature renderings of scenes from her life. She builds her home, her children’s school, her mother’s hospice, and more. She claims that she builds these things to gain an objective view of these people, places, and events, implying that perhaps this artistic pursuit is something of a coping mechanism. Symbolically, Aster uses this device to emphasize the external manipulation which he comes to reveal is being put on the family.
Much of Hereditary is a slow burn. Aster exhibits surprising restraint for a first time director as he withholds graphic images in the name of building tension and he allows a sense of horror to slowly wash over his viewer rather than throwing it in their faces from the outset. As the supernatural events surrounding the film increase, so too do the family’s struggles to maintain civility. Annie’s fractured relationship with her mother has led to a distressing emotional state and it becomes clear as the story wears on that she is unsuited to be holding her family together through the amount of misfortune that they experience. Steve is no comforting husband, and his response to her outbursts is usually anger. In this way, he is probably the most infuriating character in the movie. As much as Hereditary is a film about coping with grief and mental illness, it is also a film about the wrong way to react to a loved one coping with these challenges. Steve continually undermines Annie’s feelings and exacerbates her understandably hysterical condition.
Among the greatest compliments that can be paid to Hereditary belong to its performers. All four family members are spectacular in their roles, though a special mention needs to be made of Collette who gives one of the most powerful performances of her career. Fluctuating through a wide array of emotions, Collette can be at times alienating and at others sympathetic, but she is always genuine. Ann Dowd’s handful of on-screen appearances as Joan are also worthy of mention, as she gives the most subtle performance in the film but does so very effectively. The greatest surprise for me was young Milly Shapiro, who plays the film’s most unsettling character with a wonderfully subdued demeanor that has deservedly drawn comparisons to young Linda Blair in The Exorcist.
Another extremely praiseworthy element of the film is the stellar sound design. Aside from the brilliantly atmospheric score, the use of sound to build tension is very powerful. One particular effect used throughout Hereditary is a tongue-clicking sound that Charlie makes. As the film wears on, the simple sound is used to usher in a sense of impending danger, and admittedly startled me in each of its uses. In a theatrical setting, with full surround sound, the noise would almost always originate from behind the audience, giving the sense that the danger was right there, in the theater. The effect is genuinely terrifying.
While all of these compliments are well deserved, the apparent weaknesses of Hereditary must be mentioned. While the overwhelming majority of the film was extremely well executed, it seems that Aster couldn’t maintain his restraint through the full run time. Perhaps it was just the feeling that he needed a climactic ending, or the sense that the film’s many secrets needed a comprehensive payoff, but the last twenty minutes of the film go almost completely off the rails. Outrageous supernatural horror and gore undermine the subtle atmosphere that Aster had been building and the film turns into yet another middling Poltergeist imitation. Hereditary’s final moments seem to be trying desperately to capitalize on the buzz that The Witch generated, as Aster could’ve written the scene merely by photocopying the final page of that script, altering the character names, and adding a handful of lines of dialogue. It recontextualizes the same sentiment into Hereditary’s story arc, robbing the viewer of the unique experience that the film had lead us to believe was coming.
It is unfortunate that these final moments stop Hereditary from being the truly groundbreaking horror film that it had the potential to be. Still, it does break some long untread ground in the world of slow-paced, atmospheric horror. While its finale does betray that tone, it doesn’t negate what came before. Frankly, lack of restraint is not a surprising fault for an inexperienced filmmaker, but the fact that Aster managed to ward it off for as long as he did is a testament to his talents as an artist. I have no doubt that we will see more exciting projects from this young director, and until then I will choose to dwell on those portions of Hereditary which were executed with a brilliant artistic eye.