Ari Aster’s directorial debut Hereditary has been in wide release for a couple of weeks now and the buzz has been deafening, but how much of it is earned?
The film has earned universal praise from critics, but was given a dreadful D+ CinemaScore from audiences. Not quite the “F” given to Darren Arononofsky’s similarly frenzied Mother! (which critics were much more divided on), but clearly a sign that general audiences aren’t warming to this challenging horror chiller. Not that film distributor A24 should be worried — the film has already made over $30 million on a $10 million budget and there is already considerable awards buzz for star Toni Collette’s astounding technical performance. So, is it the next terrifying horror classic akin to Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist? It certainly shares a bloodline and has some truly unsettling and inspired moments, but for me at least, its overall delivery is befuddling.
Hereditary’s story focuses on miniature artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette), her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), teenage son Peter (Alex Wolf), and troubled 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). The film opens with the funeral of Annie’s mother Ellen, who Annie describes as having always been secretive, leading to an prolonged estrangement between them. To deal with the grief of her mother’s passing, Annie attends a group therapy session where she reveals her family’s history of mental illness. Later Annie confesses to fellow group member Joan (Ann Dowd) that she has a history of sleepwalking and once woke up finding herself and her children covered in paint thinner while she held a lit match. Annie’s daughter Charlie was very close to her grandmother Ellen, who always wished she had been born a boy. Annie admits that she purposely kept her son Peter away from Ellen, but gave in with Charlie out of a sense of guilt after years of not talking to each other.
A third of the way into the film another shockingly tragic event occurs sending the family into turmoil that quickly spins out of control. That may be a vague setup, but to say much more would ruin Hereditary’s many surprises. Yes, bizarre and terrifying things happen, including saences and possession, but that’s not what Hereditary is about. At least not at first. It’s a dense film about grief, mental illness, motherhood and the traits we pass on to our children. It’s meaty stuff and almost too much to pack into its two-hour running time. Director Ari Aster plays fast and loose with whether the images we are seeing are reality or a horrific delusion manufactured by Annie’s deteriorating mental state. The film’s climax upends any sense of balance by diving into full-blown horror madness that ultimately descends into goofiness. It’s a messy finish to a captivating, but confounding story.
Hereditary has learned from the best horror films in taking the time to establish a world and characters and slowly build toward the terrors within. Aster’s craft is unmistakable and the film’s dollhouse aesthetic (lensed by Pawel Pogorzelski) beautifully mirrors Annie’s profession and own detachment while providing an unsettling viewpoint. But that same aesthetic keeps the viewer disconnected from the real drama playing out on screen. From the beginning the film telegraphs with its stereotypically ominous score (composed by Colin Stetson) that some very bad things are about to happen. It’s a mistake that too many horror films make, but can be avoided by investing in the characters first. Think of the loving scenes of normalcy we get between Regan and Chris in The Exorcist before the demonic possession, for example. Hereditary starts with a broken family and things only get worse. Once the story propulses itself towards its hellish conclusion you may be shocked by the images, but indifferent toward the emotional stakes.
Ari Aster confirmed that a three-hour cut of the film existed before it was trimmed down to its current runtime, with those extra scenes taking a deeper dive into the family dynamics and the brutal process of grief. Even though the pace of Hereditary is slow going, in its theatrical form it lacks the emotional anchor those excised minutes suggest. As it is, the dramatic arc is placed squarely on Toni Collette’s shoulders and she more than rises to the occasion. Collette has to juggle a barrage of conflicting emotions and Aster has written her a handful of meaty scenes to chew on. Instead, she devours them. Whether coldly confessing that she attempted to miscarry her son, screaming with rage about the death of a loved one at the dinner table, or struggling through tears to communicate with a spirit from the beyond, Collette is nothing less than astonishing in her versatility as an actress. It’s a tough role and she commits to it fully with no sense of pride or hesitation. If this were a straight drama she’d be walking away with every award under the sun. It will certainly be an interesting awards season to watch should she gain traction despite genre bias.
The rest of the cast is gamely committed to the material, but none are given the showcase that Toni Collette receives. Gabriel Byrne plays the concerned husband well enough, but at almost 70 years old he’s distractingly miscast. Milly Shapiro will probably forever be typecast as the creepy girl, but she fits that mold well. Ann Dowd gets a couple of important moments and manages to be simultaneously nurturing and disconcerting. Out of all of the supporting players, Alex Wolff makes the biggest impression and fervently lands more than a few disturbing scenes along with some flirtations with body horror. His forceful interactions with Collette are when the film is at its strongest.
I’ve avoided talking specifically about spoilers in this review, particularly when it comes to the film’s denouement. So much of how you will respond to Hereditary lies in those final moments. And though this review has skewed somewhat negative, make no mistake — Hereditary deserves to be seen and debated. It’s a film that needs time to be digested and multiple viewings will either uncover greater rewards or even more significant frustrations. We are currently living in a genre film renaissance. Just a few months ago The Shape of Water won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Get Out was a box office sensation and a major critical and awards success. And already this year A Quiet Place has earned its place among some of the best high concept studio horror films ever made. Horror has always been the perfect genre to explore the fragility of the human condition, and Hereditary carries on that tradition. But is it a horror classic? Time and perspective will tell.