A24’s latest art-house horror film Hereditary is supremely unsettling and anchored by one of the best performances of the year in any film, horror or otherwise, from Toni Collette. What follows is my spoiler-lite review.
The A24 hype train is rather familiar by now. Produce a slow-moving horror movie more indebted to Polanski and Kubrick than Carpenter and Craven. Put it in film festivals to build up word of mouth among cinephiles. Drop a wildly misleading trailer that says little about the plot and instead compresses all of the film’s conventionally scary parts into two and half minutes. Then, watch as the general audience and film nerds duke it out on Rotten Tomatoes.
See: The Witch, It Comes At Night.
Now we have Hereditary, the debut feature from writer-director Ari Aster. It centers on the Graham family – mom Annie (Collette), dad Steve (Gabriel Byrne), girl-obsessed teen son Peter (Alex Wolff), and 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). At the start of the film, we find them on their way to grandma’s funeral, an event which has Annie torn up inside. On the one hand, she loved her mother. On the other hand, her mom didn’t always make that easy. This leads her to deliver a mixed eulogy, referring to her mom as “secretive” and “stubborn” while also sometimes capable of being the sweetest woman in the world.
Annie’s not the only one affected by the death. While Steve and Peter take it in stride, Charlie, an already withdrawn and strange kid given to making weird drawings, feels abandoned. She was grandma’s little girl. “Who will take care of me now?” Charlie later wonders aloud to her gobsmacked mom.
And for around an hour, Hereditary is simply a movie about a family grieving. Take away Aster’s methodical camera slowly peeking around corners and Colin Stetson’s ominous, minimalistic musical score and it would almost be an Oscar movie, with one ready-made awards clip after another for Collette’s heartbreaking performance, particularly when she reluctantly bares her soul for strangers at a self-help group for people coping with death. As Chris Stuckmann argued on YouTube, “There’s something about the core of this movie that feels real.”
Except there’s always something horror-related playing on the edges of the story. A relatively early moment of Annie briefly glimpsing what appears to be her mom’s ghost in the corner of a room suggests something supernatural. An Omen-esque moment of a bird mysteriously flying straight into a window around Charlie also strikes a horror chord. And Annie’s day job as an artist specializing in miniature tableaus constantly threatens to become something more significant.
But you’re never sure where exactly Hereditary is going with any of it. For example, the inciting incident – won’t spoil what happens, simply acknowledging something does happen – which kicks the plot into its second gear literally left me covering my opened mouth in shock. Once Ann Dowd enters the picture at almost exactly the one-hour mark, it’s almost disappointing when more familiar horror elements start to come into play. Somewhat sadly, it all builds to the kind of third act reveals we’ve seen many times before, but never quite like this.
However, Hereditary true strength is not what it ultimately does with the story but in how it chooses to tell it. Aster and his clearly talented team of collaborators have produced a film which is pretty much weaponized dread, a spiritual cousin in that way to It Follows, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, The Witch, even mother!. Any other horror movie can give us jump scares; very few can give us something as profound and real as Hereditary’s dinner scene when the family finally airs their grievances with one another in the most cut-to-the-core fashion imaginable.
Hereditary is at least Collette’s third time playing the mom in a horror movie, after Sixth Sense and Fright Night, but it’s her first time being the true star of the show. As The LA Times put it, Collette plays “Annie like an instrument going slowly out of tune, chattering away with mounting desperation, exposing more and more nerve endings in every scene.” Byrne, channeling a bit of his In Treatment character, does his best as the increasingly concerned husband, and Wolff and Shapiro are solid as the guilt-stricken teen and troubled child, respectively. But this is a tour de force, showcase piece for Collette. Let the Oscar campaign begin now. After Get Out, we can’t discount her just because she’s in a horror movie.
THE BOTTOM LINE
An uncommonly unsettling family drama that happens to eventually remember it’s a horror movie and puts Toni Collette through the emotional ringer, transfixing us in the process.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- A24’s horror trailers remind me of AMC’s old purposefully incoherent Mad Men previews.
- About those third act reveals: Hereditary is the type of film which actually improves with a second viewing because you see just how many clues are actually sprinkled throughout the first two acts.
- What are the chances the Academy ignores BOTH Emily Blunt for A Quiet Place and Collette for this?
- My A24 horror/thriller rankings, favorite to least favorite – Hereditary, Green Room, The Witch, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, It Comes At Night.