Director: Ari Aster
Stars: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro
When you first hear it – or notice it – it sounds like something you ought to report to the staff. The movie’s playing but there’s this sound, as though a party’s going on next door. Someone’s playing their music too loudly and its interrupting the film. A barely perceptible elevated heartbeat, muffled as though travelling through walls. It’s irritating. And then you realise that it’s part of the mix. It’s not external. It’s in the fibre of the film. Ari Aster is fucking with you.
That’s what we’re dealing with here; a new master trickster. Someone out to resolutely get under your skin and provoke a reaction. For better or worse.
I’m not going to tell you too much about the plot mechanics of Hereditary. Too much relies on knowing as little as possible. Go in not knowing what you’re setting yourself up for and you’ll experience it as intended (don’t even visit the imdb page; the photo header itself is spoilery). But I will talk about craft and tone. Still, in order to do so the barest bones of an explanation will be required.
Annie (Toni Collette) is an artist who works in miniatures and she is grieving, or trying to. Her mother recently passed away and she’s still coming to terms with what that means for her. Her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is quiet, accustomed to living at a lower tempo than his wife. They have two teenage children; Peter (Alex Wolff) is a sensitive stoner approaching graduation, while 13-year-old Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is… different, but not without her own gifts. A flare for elaborate art evidently runs in the family.
And, as the title suggests, that isn’t all. An unexpected event causes the brittle relationships within the household to break down further. Like his characters, writer/director Aster skirts around talking things out. He beds in daisy chains of fear and resentment. These people are ready to turn on one another at the drop of a fork.
A witless argument has broken out in pockets of social media over whether Hereditary is a horror film or a family drama when the answer is actually yes. It is both, all of the time. Aster allows information to tumble out quicker than we can catch it, or lets the viewer discover it, encouraging us to play detective, never undervaluing our own eagerness to play sleuth. This in itself is rewarding, but the manner in which he sets up his stock here is exceedingly impressive.
It’s not just that goddamn sound. Space is a constant concern. The film opens with a long push-in on one of Annie’s models, only for this to seamlessly blend into the first scene between actors, as though everything that follows takes place in a dollhouse. While this isn’t an idea that is carried forward literally, Aster frequently composes familial scenes from this slight remove, as though the actors could tumble out of a model at any minute, revealed as miniatures. He starts unboxing the film’s reality from the very beginning, preparing us for some more significant jerks later on.
The intensity between the leads has no out, even in the spacious woodsy surroundings of… wherever they live. We don’t often see other people, save Ann Dowd’s uncharacteristically cheery Joan. Even the big box superstores of Hereditary seem to exist in the middle of nowhere. Neighbourhoods are spaced out, affluent but distant. This very expansiveness creates a kind of oxymoron of claustrophobia. Too much can go on without anyone noticing. It feels as though there’s nowhere to turn for help or escape.
Even before its started really fucking with you (and it does), Hereditary tells you its a horror. It’s there in the way the camera slowly, coolly drifts through doorways; in the initially dour tone and hyperactivity of the score; in the lingering, deliberate pacing. ‘Normal’ films just don’t behave this way. But neither is Aster interested in playing to current trends. Only one moment comes close to a jump scare. More often Aster will plant something horrendous in a scene and let you find it yourself. This has a cumulatively more oppressive and exhausting effect. No corner of a frame is truly safe.
These things are truly subjective, but personally… this is one of the scariest films I’ve watched. I was uptight with this thing.
Toni Collette is committed, unafraid to mine the intensities of extreme grief. To begin with this feels a tiny bit at odds with Aster’s slightly more austere approach, but by its second hour Hereditary has started to mutate and reveal more of itself. The film ratchets up the crazy, packs in the weird, and constantly seems to teeter on the brink of exploding its own credibility.
In this sense it feels reminiscent of films like mother! which seem custom-built to dare the audience to laugh or leave. Or even the operatic tenor of a genre classic like Possession (1981). Hereditary is funny in the sense that it is hysterical in the truest meaning of the word. After the cagey opening, the dance to the end is performed with wicked glee. Aster has his actors performing pirouettes of torment, in the process providing the genre with some indelible imagery that’ll go down as classic.
As much as Collette and Wolff are getting much of the acting praise, I hope people also appreciate what Gabrielle Byrne brings to the table in a more reserved and measured role. Milly Shapiro, meanwhile, commands every second that she appears on screen.
As a directorial debut this is incredibly exciting. We immediately have a new name to keep an eye on. Trust A24 to come up with the goods again. But be warned, as with all provocative, deliberately ‘weird’ movies fortunate enough to snatch-up the distribution for a mainstream release, Hereditary isn’t about to fold up neatly into your palm. It’s a mischievous beast, both elegant and giddily ungainly. Consider yourselves warned.