“Hereditary” is extraordinary. I cannot for the life of me remember a scary movie that so perfectly took the standard tropes of the genre, threw them in a blender, and presented them in such a way where they didn’t feel tired. With “Hereditary”, first time director Ari Aster may have created one of the most genuinely thoughtful, not to mention terrifying, horror films that I have ever seen.
The Graham family has a troubled past. The film opens with Annie Graham (the matriarch of the family) eulogizing her dead mother, Ellen. Right away we are let in on the fact that Ellen was a bit of an odd duck, and that the strange behavior she displayed throughout her life has rubbed onto the rest of her family. While most of the family seems to be emotionally detached from her death (her daughter even asks, “Should I be sad?”), her granddaughter Charlie is profoundly affected. She always felt a deep connection with her grandmother, and that connection will lead the Grahams down a path of insanity that may hit so close to home with audiences that they will begin to assess how their own families have dealt with trauma.
The elements of this film are pretty typical. It’s got the seemingly insane mother, the worried father, the creepy little girl, the terrified teenager, a quaint home in the woods, and a few cases of what seems to be demonic possession. What’s unique about “Hereditary”, however, is how these standard chess pieces are moved around within the narrative. The characters all have layers, and the way that each scene is shot is so masterful that it is hard to wrap your head around how there aren’t more movies like this. These characters are introduced to us in ways that make us feel for them immediately.
In one early scene, Charlie (played by the young Milly Shapiro) cuts the head off of a dead bird with a pair of scissors, only to use it later to turn it into a sort of toy. It’s creepy sure, but the way it’s presented within the film makes you feel empathy toward her rather than fear of her. The entire first act plays out this way. The film gives us bits of information about the family’s history of mental illness that remind us of the experiences our own families have been through (one member of the family suffered from schizophrenia and committed suicide because he thought his mother was, “trying to put people inside of him”). Adverse experiences, illnesses, and personality traits are passed on, and some families are destined to break. The Grahams are breaking... in spectacular fashion.
Toni Collette is mesmerizing in this film as the family matriarch Annie (the “seemingly insane mother” mentioned earlier). She’s perhaps best known for playing the broken mother in “The Sixth Sense”, and takes that emotionally resonant performance to the next level here. She’s asked to portray compassion, loneliness, anger, and fear in this film, and to say she brings her “A-Game” would be the definition of “putting it lightly.” It’s the best performance you’re likely to see this year. Collette has some scenes in this that make you want to cry, some that will send quick shivers down your spine, and others that will make those of you susceptible to fear jump right out of your seat. It’s special, and it should be seen as a benchmark against which similar roles will be judged against for years to come.
The other performances are great as well. Gabriel Byrne plays Steve Graham; he’s the father just trying to keep everything together while chaos erupts around him. He plays the part of a struggling father with a quiet strength, but sadness in his eyes. Milly Shapiro (previously mentioned) plays Charlie in a reserved/creepy performance, and Alex Wolff plays the teenage son Peter, in what might be the second-best performance you see this year. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the feeling of shock or guilt played with such authenticity.
The way these characters interact with each other felt so real to me that I started to feel like I was watching a greatly exaggerated version of my own family on screen. You realize pretty quickly that this family doesn’t always know how to communicate feelings with each other, and that struck me as particularly relevant to the dynamics of my own family. We’ve all had those family gatherings at the kitchen table where you could cut the tension with a knife, or those nights where you resent a particular family member and thus make a point of avoiding him or her. It’s human nature: nobody can get under your skin like your family.
While the family drama and performances would have been enough to carry this film on its own, what’s perhaps more impressive is the style in which the director presents them. The film is a slow burn, both in its presentation of scenes there to dump exposition, and in the way it handles its shocking scares. Awful things happen in this movie, and none of them feel like cheap scares. Something terrible will happen just off camera, and while a less skilled filmmaker would immediately show it to you, Ari Aster lets you stew in it. You know what happened, and when he finally puts it on screen it’s the most delightful payoff.
The film also knows how to build tension in its intense moments. There are multiple scenes in this movie that will have you searching every corner of a room with your eyes (there are a bunch of wide shots that show entire rooms) only to find something scary and have it linger there, ready to strike, for upwards of 30 seconds. What’s amazing is that these scary things are framed in such a way that I could see how many people wouldn't even notice them. Other movies have supernatural people or monsters hiding in corners, but they make sure to highlight them and play a loud noise to let you know they're there. This film rewards you for paying close attention, and I find that refreshing.
The fact that “Hereditary” is the scariest movie of the year doesn’t surprise me. What shocks me is that a small horror film happens to have the best performance I’ve seen in years, the best drama I’ve seen this year, and perhaps the most honest look at a troubled family that I’ve ever seen on film. Go see it immediately.