Hereditary movie review: Debutant director Ari Aster has made a horror masterpiece, a nightmare-inducing story of malevolent evil, featuring an Oscar-worthy Toni Collette performance.
Director – Ari Aster
Cast – Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd
Rating – 4.5/5
The buzz around Hereditary, as is usually the case with horror films, was passionate. For months, the film had fended off naysayers and retained its perfect 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Rash connections to a royal lineage – one that could be traced back to Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist – were being made. Broken box office records were being anticipated. But nothing about Hereditary was more enticing to me than its rancid ‘D’ CinemaScore. For films to be divisive isn’t a new phenomenon, and the disconnect between paying audiences and pampered critics is a debate that even Salman Khan couldn’t settle.
The anger that used to be expressed in letters of complaint has simply been replaced by angrier online rants. The audience’s power, as it were, has been commodified. But you can safely rely on CinemaScore, a service that polls opening day US audiences with irreparably faulty methodology, to discover the most visionary genre cinema being made today. In 2017, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! became one of only a dozen or so movies to receive an ‘F’ rating – the lowest possible.
A few years before that, Robert Eggers’ The Witch and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive both received ‘D’ scores But what does this mean? Well, to put it simply, it means that there exists a contingent of moviegoers out there that truly, madly, deeply despises these films – each of which, funnily enough, has gone on to acquire an unflinching cult following.
Hereditary fits perfectly in this group, so to avoid more confusion – and more importantly, any further disappointment – it would make sense for you to set a few ground rules before you give in to pent-up curiosity and just watch the damn thing. For starters, there is no scenario that ends with you having a pleasant experience watching this film.
There is a malevolence about it, an unshakable evilness that penetrates your psyche drop by painful drop as if it were being poured in your pried-open eyes as you flailed about hopelessly, splayed out on a flat surface, limbs tied to the edges. There is a certain inevitability with which the characters hurtle towards their doom – almost as if they were unsuspecting prey on a wildlife show, unaware of the panther shadowing their every move, waiting to pounce.
In an age when most horror filmmakers have either forgotten the insidious power of long, drawn-out tension or have been forced to hit certainly predetermined marks, Ari Aster – making his feature debut – seems to have tapped into the sheer primal force that drives all horror: empathy. If you cannot imagine yourself in the characters’ shoes if you do not care whether they live or die, no jump scare is going to be enough; no elaborate makeup, no creepy sets Nothing.
Like the best scary movies, Hereditary at its core is a drama. It begins with a rather inventive opening shot, which pans across a bedroom and towards a miniature model of a family home, which soon merges into reality, suggesting a level of artifice about the story. It’s a fantastic opening – one that instantly identifies Aster as a visual storyteller of immense promise – and is outshone only by the film’s jaw-dropping final moments.
Annie, played by Toni Collette, is a miniature artist. She has models lying around all over her house, which she shares with her husband and their two children – a boy and a girl, both in their teens, and both outsiders in a largely faceless world. The film begins with the family leaving for the funeral of Annie’s mother, who was a very private person, we’re told. Ellen suffered from several unidentified mental illnesses, which strained her relationship with Annie and her grandchildren.
Her death sets off a series of events that I cannot reveal here but can promise you will work infinitely better the less you know about them. Hereditary is a film about trauma. It is a film about how a person’s sins are transmitted, like a disease, onto their children. It is an inescapable burden that we must bear for no fault of our own – sort of like being born poor, or rich – all the while cultivating our own flaws to pass on.
Annie has been unable to live a meaningful life because of the childhood she had to endure, and even in death, her mother’s memory hounds her. None of this – and I can’t stress this enough – would have been half as potent were it not for Toni Collette’s performance. There is not a single frame in which her commitment is questionable; she’s fierce, she’s vulnerable and when she wants to be, she’s utterly terrifying.
A scream of anguish she delivers around 30 minutes into the film is still ringing in my ears. How unexpected would it be, and how wonderful, if in a year’s time both Collette and Emily Blunt – star of this year’s other horror breakout, A Quiet Place – were to receive Academy Award nominations? It’s wishful thinking, yes, but I see no valid downsides to this. These are career-best performances we’re talking about, and to dismiss them simply because they’re bound to a genre that has been treated with inexplicable unfairness is, well, unfair.
But more than anything else, it is Aster’s future that promises great things. Not only does he have that rare talent of pacing a story, and a scene, but he also understands that sometimes, all it takes is an image – a sneaky little moment that will go unnoticed by a majority of the audience. But that’s the thing about Hereditary; it isn’t a watered down crowd-pleaser, it’s an aggressively strange experience that wants to be the best version of itself for the few who will appreciate it.