Toni Collette plays Annie Graham, a troubled mother who, after a death in the family, begins to experience strange occurrences that may be related to her own mother’s mysterious past.
Ari Aster’s feature film debut (after a number of highly regarded short films) possesses a craftsmanship that elevates its effectiveness as a slow-burning, atmospheric horror film. Both its enigmatic qualities and carefully constructed suspense complement its stylistic flourishes, putting it not just in the spiritual domain of genre classics like The Wicker Man and Rosemary’s Baby, but in the same league too.
Framed around the death of an unusual matriarch, Annie Graham (Toni Collette) quickly reveals, by way of her eulogy, a troubled relationship with her mother. She hardly knew her; and in her final days, while living with the family (Annie’s two children Charlie and Peter, and husband Steve) she was largely uncommunicative. But the passing of the old woman appears to open old wounds that begin to show themselves in increasingly disconcerting ways.
Charlie (Milly Shapiro), a quiet, insular 13-year-old, appears most affected by the death. She wanders off to sleep in the treehouse at night despite the cold, scrawls odd drawings in a notebook, and hacks off the head of a dead bird to make a macabre makeshift toy. Peter (Alex Wolff), however, is less concerned about familial loss, preferring to forget by smoking weed and allowing his distant relationship with Annie to become even more remote. Husband and father, Steve, hangs around the edges of this disconnected family unit as Annie’s mental health becomes fractured by an event that sends shockwaves throughout them all.
Aster’s confidence as a writer-director is showcased by his willingness to remain unrushed in his minimalist plotting; sedate pacing that favours ambience, ambiguity and characterisation. His camera’s movement, like a spectre creeping around the room, has an unsettling calmness that belies the increasing tension of the drama on screen. This works well; particular the way it sharpens the focus on the breakdown of this unconventional domesticity, giving some fine performances, particularly Collette, a stage from which to truly shine.
Aster’s strength is the way he builds towards tragedy, utilising Pawel Pogorzelski’s wonderful cinematography to supplement the foreboding otherness of the events that befall Annie and her family. Yet, he never allows the camera to overpower performance, acknowledging Hereditary’s other stand out attribute. Indeed, Collette represents everything that is good about the film. Her off-centred fragility is cracking from the beginning before gradually imploding to reveal the disquiet of complete psychological torment.
Annie’s story is the crux of Aster’s ominous conceit. She’s the unwilling matriarch; inconvenienced by motherhood for reasons that become chillingly clear. Collette doesn’t let Annie’s ambivalence to her children allow her situation to lose our sympathies. Indeed, there’s admirable courage evident in her workaholic nature, the Australian actress depicting this mother’s determination to support her family even if parenthood appears to be unnatural to her.
Even though that is at odds with Chris MacNeil’s maternal devotion in The Exorcist, Collette’s striking turn has similarities with Ellen Burstyn’s staggering performance in William Friedkin’s horror masterpiece. You can also see elements of Julie Christie in Don’t Look Now; ingrained tragedy cemented in expression. Thus, Collette elevates Hereditary into the top echelons of the genre.
That the film doesn’t quite fulfil its promise is down to Aster relying too heavily on enigma to drive the narrative. We’re gripped by mystery, conundrum and malevolent mood but there are times when the film would have benefited from an injection of pace. Instead Aster defaults to glorifying mise-en-scene; perhaps the indulgence of a first-timer or more likely evidencing the writer-director’s acknowledgement of weaknesses in his script.
Some of Hereditary’s supernatural staging is straight out of the playbook; the group séance recalling The Changeling and every Ouija board since. Meanwhile, the film’s dramatic moves are expected, some of its supposed plot twists failing to achieve their desired effect.
And unlike the marvellous performances around him, Gabriel Byrne is oddly left out in the cold. It befits the character’s detachment from the experiences his children and wife are facing but it does not detract from the single dimension of the character; a convenience to plot progression when warranted. Byrne is forgettable; a piece of Aster’s admittedly pleasing set decoration.
But he’s the only forgettable thing about Hereditary. It’s the sort of horror film that finds its unique characteristics in tone, presentation and performance; a boldness in conceit mirrored by the powerhouse Collette and pronounced by the stylish flourishes of a director confident in his ability to get under the audience’s skin. Indeed, there are few films in recent years possessing such a troubling, affecting last 20 minutes (including what will undoubtedly become one of the genre’s most memorable sequences of all time). For a first film, it’s exceptional; as an addition to the genre, it’s an indelible mark that will be felt for a long time.
Written by Dan Stephens
Directed by: Ari Aster
Written by: Ari Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Byrne
Released: 2018 / Genre: Horror
Country: USA / IMDB
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Hereditary was released on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital on October 8.