Dir. Ari Aster; Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro
[3 out of 4 stars]
Hereditary (2018) begins with the funeral of the Graham family’s matriarch, Ellen. Her daughter Annie (Toni Collette) explains in her eulogy that her estranged mother was “difficult” and “private,” with secret rituals and friends, which, she says, “maybe explains me.” We get a sense of creeping unease early on, when 11-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is standing in front of her grandmother’s coffin. She happens to glance up and notices a man staring right at her and grinning widely. Despite these early signs, it takes some time for the full force of the horror to reveal itself. At the outset, we watch the family simply eat dinner, attend work and school. Annie’s son Peter (Alex Wolff) is a high schooler and wants to go to a party. Dad Steve (Gabriel Byrne) scolds Charlie for sleeping in the tree house when it’s cold outside. Annie works on her installation of miniature, dollhouse-sized scenes crafted from her own life, a project set for later display in a museum. For an extended period of time, nothing much happens, and the audience is merely left anxious and tense. But Ari Aster uses this time to deliberately showcase the family interactions, relationships, and emotions that make later events much more weighty and horrifying. Hereditary quickly deteriorates into the downright bizarre and horrifying, and what begins as a film about family tragedy and complicated personal relationships devolves as grief and anger permeate all of the family’s interactions.
This is not a film that relies on jump scares to spook its audience; Aster crafts suspense deliberately, following Annie when she slowly walks into her first grief group meeting or Peter as he walks down the dark halls of the house at night to investigate where his parents are. The fear builds from just knowing what could be there, and Aster has done enough work early on that we fear what we cannot see, even though it’s not a traditional monster. The shots are often wide and long, tracking the characters in 360-degree shots that focus on them in order to hide the true horror from our view. The camera rotates around them as they look around themselves and settles on their faces before finally revealing what they see. This tactic only works due to the quality of performance that each actor offers, and it vastly increases the horror we feel. Seeing Collette’s or Wolff’s face warp in terror involuntarily twists our own faces, fearful of what we might see next.
Collette’s performance is outstanding. For Annie, motherhood is not easy, and she alternates between grief, anger, and horror throughout much of the film. Given that the camera is often trained on her, her ability to convey so much emotion through her facial expressions becomes an invaluable asset. For her, one horrified expression is not the same as another. Her fear is multifaceted, changing from scene to scene so that it always feels absolutely real and convincing; her terror when she glimpses her mother’s ghost is different than that when she sees the pages of a notebook fluttering on their own. While the role of the grieving daughter should elicit automatic sympathy, Collette makes it extremely difficult, even asking her husband at one point, “Should I be sadder?” She is often moody or sullen, playing with her food at dinner, and rarely gives a straight answer to a question. When Peter asks her “Is there something on your mind, mom?” she asks, irritated, “Is there something on your mind?” While Collette’s face is beautiful, all it takes is a subtle shift in expression or a change in lighting for her to look terrifyingly unhinged. We spend much of the movie mulling over exactly what has gone wrong here, but all we know is that we’re not sure that we can trust her.
Sharing the screen with Collette and often giving it right back to her with equal measure is Wolff, giving a performance for which he so entirely lived and breathed a role that he only half joked afterwards that he’s suffering from PTSD. His performance is ugly in the best possible way; it’s visceral and emotional as real people are, not in the sterilized version movies often portray. In other films, Peter easily could have been a stock character, the moody high school teenager who — when his family is in distress — bravely steps up to protect them. But here, rather than remaining strong, he simply dissolves under the pressure of the nightmare that his life has become. At one particularly harrowing point, he breaks down crying hysterically, his agony palpable in his sobs as he cries out for his “mommy!” We watch him just fall apart as Hereditary progresses. In fact, the shot that most haunts me is a long close-up of his face, staring vacantly into space, as Annie screams hauntingly in the background.
Yet, the sound that is most terrifying in Hereditary is not the screams or the sobs, but a tongue-clicking that is a tic of Charlie’s. Sometimes so quiet that you question whether you heard it at all and sometimes so loud that it appears to come from the person sitting right next to you, this supposedly innocent noise has become the film’s calling card and the easiest way to spook those who have seen it. The sound design, however, features much more than this simple sound, and Colin Stetson’s music is perfectly timed to elicit the most fear among viewers. He wisely leaves large swaths of silence untouched before introducing the erratic jump of piano keys or a passionate saxophone at the perfect moment. Still, Stetson doesn’t need music to elicit fear and demonstrates that utter and complete silence — while driving alone at night, for example — is often far more terrifying than screams.
The only disappointing aspect of Hereditary is its conclusion, which unfortunately devolves to become cliché. Rather than sticking with the delicately beautiful family drama that Aster crafted, the film’s culmination suddenly ends up being nothing new or particularly scary. However, before the film’s last five minutes, each of the individual scenes is so traumatizing and brilliant on its own that the film is definitely worth watching. The fear that seeps into you feels personal and familial, a result of this raw and deranged look at a family crumbling under the weight of its own grief and hardship. It’s just a shame that the pieces do not coalesce into a more satisfactory, creative whole.