Coming into Hereditary – my favorite horror film of 2018 so far – it’s best to know as few plot specifics as possible. Avoid trailers and even photos, since one of its promotional stills ruins a major late event. (Shame on A24: up till now, this upstart distributor has been so smart, bringing us thoughtful fare like Moonlight, The Florida Project, Ex Machina, and The Lobster.)
In keeping with this recommendation, I’ll talk around major plot reveals in my review. Hereditary bears comparing to the great horror movie of 2016, The Witch, another A24 release. Both are debut features, full of mature confidence in establishing an atmosphere of uncanny dread. Thematically, both deal with the consequences of sharing a claustrophobic roof with a toxic family.
Writer/director Ari Aster’s film immediately opens upon an off-kilter domesticity. Even the treehouse outside the Graham family’s Rocky Mountain home looks somehow ominous and unbalanced. This sense is only heightened by the eulogy that Toni Collette’s Annie offers at her mother’s funeral service, blandly commenting on the “strange new faces” in the audience that would’ve made her secretive mom suspicious.
As we meet the rest of Annie’s family, we learn that both of her parents and her only sibling suffered from crippling mental illness. Her psychiatrist husband Steve, played by a subdued Gabriel Byrne, seems reduced to passive reaction. Their 13 year old daughter Charlie, with her disheveled hair, blunted affect, inattention, and warped artistic creations, is riding the express train to a full-blown psychotic disorder. Her older brother Peter appears marginally better adjusted, with friends and typical adolescent hormones, though skating through high school perpetually stoned.
Out of the four of them, Charlie alone is bereft by Ellen’s death, the others relieved by the troubled, disruptive matriarch’s passing. However, another far more devastating trauma soon wrecks the family’s tenuous equilibrium.All of this is handled so expertly. The editing shows us Toni Collette wailing at a horrible morning discovery, then jump cuts to her same wailing at a later graveside. The inventive visual framing gifts us with the image of Peter staring out his window to the treehouse where his mother increasingly retreats, the ruddy glow of its heaters imprinted on his pupils.
Poring over my notes scrawled in the dark as I watched Hereditary, I see evidence of foreshadowing that indicates a second viewing will be just as rewarding. In Peter’s English class, his teacher lectures about Sophocles’ protagonists, doomed by fate. This signals the tragedy that may be impossible for the Graham children to escape, doubly burdened with their mother’s genes and their grandmother’s spiritual fixations.
The home as a metaphor for family dynamics has certainly been done elsewhere, but that doesn’t stop it from triumphing here. The boxes of Ellen’s belongings that Annie tentatively peeks into before abruptly shutting the lid, as well as the locked door to her bedroom that still keeps opening, signify family secrets refusing burial. Their gorgeous house that wouldn’t look out of place in an architectural magazine spread, and the dollhouses that Annie meticulously details, likewise symbolize facades hiding darker things.
Toni Collette has made a career of portraying complex moms of varying stripes, whether harried yet empathic (The Sixth Sense, Little Miss Sunshine) or neglectfully self-absorbed (The Way Way Back). Her maternal role in Hereditary may be her richest, convincingly depicting Annie’s mercurial moods and growing instability.
The actors playing her kids do terrific work, too. This is Milly Shapiro’s first movie role, as Charlie, but her doll-like inexpressiveness fits Hereditary’s tone better than Cinderella’s glass slipper. Alex Wolfe is similarly impressive, allowing us to sympathize most with his descent during the fall of the house of Graham.
Gabriel Byrne’s wispiness is, I suspect, intended to communicate the failure of rationality when facing implacable genetic and spiritual inheritance. At least he gets to utter the film’s most darkly comedic line.
Hereditary doesn’t debase itself with cheap startle effects, but don’t take this to mean that it stints on shuddery and gruesome moments. This is a profoundly unsettling film that you may want to skip for now if you’re in a sunless place emotionally. Horror is far from my go-to movie genre, but this is one I look forward to revisiting for its artistry and themes – even if my experience and optimism lead me to reject its psychological determinism.
4 out of 5 stars