By: Steve Pulaski
One of the reasons Ari Aster's Hereditary succeeds as a work of supernatural horror is its rejection of the genre's common tropes as its primary devices in getting an audience reaction. Aster, who also serves as the film's writer, is cognizant of the shelf-life of jumpscares, and by shelf-life, I mean their almost immediate expiration. Wisely, he chooses to redirect his attention to the slowburn kind of dread that manifests beyond the screen and into the person viewing the film; the same person who is trying to process the emotions brought on by the film as well as their own.Hereditary's scares are rooted in two things to which we can all relate — family and feelings of vulnerability.
In one of the most stunning and authentically chilling directorial debuts of the year, Aster's film follows the rapidly disintegrating dynamic of a small suburban family. Annie (Toni Collette) has just lost her mother, an event that inspires a great deal of reflection on their problematic relationship. She spends her time coping by investing more energy into her scale-models, which she builds in her large study, and her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), leaves her to cope. Annie's sanity is further challenged when another tragedy strikes, this one closer-to-home, involving her high school-age son, Peter (Alex Wolff, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), and her tween daughter, Charlie (Broadway actress Milly Shapiro in her film debut).
Annie then finds herself at odds with her family, on top of being consoled by a woman named Joan (Ann Dowd, Compliance), whom she meets at a grief support group. Meanwhile, Peter's grip on reality begins to loosen as does his mother's when something wicked enters their quarters.
The first-hour of Hereditary is remarkably effective in generating an ominous atmosphere. Aster fixates on the tension of a grieving and unstable family, capitalizing on the evaporation of one of America's most prominent staples of suburban living. Seeing Annie collapse from the weight of unspeakable calamity is one liable to send shivers down the spines of viewers, and Peter's blank-gaze of remorse and torment is strong than any attempts to make his character say too much. So much of the film is emotionally provoking, I wouldn't be surprised if it produced tears in some.
The characters in the film are defined by their reactions and impulses to the crippling circumstances they face, and these features are heightened by the great performances. Toni Collette is tremendous, recalling her often underrated performance in The Sixth Sense, in what one wouldn't be reaching to call an Oscar-worthy performance. Collette's provocations as a grieving mother come alive in scenes where she is both in the company of her family and alone in her study, yet explode in ways that suggest the 45-year-old actress has been building up to this role her entire career. Consider when Annie lashes out at Peter over dinner, or another moment where she confronts him about how she handled being pregnant with him. These separate instances show the versatility of Collette in this one performance; she can capture the implosion of Annie just as well as the more subdued side of her own instability. Nearly every time she is on-screen, she's arresting in both energy and conviction.
Alex Wolff is another actor who shows he's come a long way from his humble Nickelodeon beginnings. He's relished playing a troubled youth in several films, and like Collette, it's as if his young but promising career has built towards this milestone. Wolff exercises the formerly unseen trait of making his very presence unsettling in a film that speaks to his ability to play detached and vulnerable simultaneously. The versatility he also manages to showcase here is one that speaks to his talents, which will hopefully be seen in more features down the line, for now, he's proven he's too good to overlook and shortchange going forward.
Just as integral as its two leading performances are to Hereditary's success, the film itself is a grandiose display of craftsmanship from a variety of uniquely talented individuals. Grace Yun's production design, which makes Annie and Steve's house frequently appear as if it's one of her elaborately detailed dioramas, is extraordinarily intricate. In conjunction with Pawel Pogorzelski's cinematography, the two make fantastic use of this eerie environment. Pogorzelski favors making what could be ordinary shots special in subtle yet distinctive ways: during a burial, we watch the casket be lowered into the ground from afar, tracking its vertical descent into the dirt below, and amidst Annie's introduction to her support group, we witness a long-shot become a close-up as she speaks about her experiences. Terrific uses of zooms, tracking shots, and rack focus do their part to make Hereditary as nerve-frying as it can be, all while making sure the final product is quaintly subtle as it slowly entrances you, instilling fear in the process. From there, Colin Stetson's score is essentially the ribbon on a film so good so frequently it might as well come gift-wrapped so you can cherish the reveal.
The film's first hour shows how great this kind of intimate examination of disintegrating domesticity can be, so much so that seeing its second-hour flirt with more conventional genre material can't help but feel disappointing. Aster does such a brilliant job of avoiding the common pitfalls that we've seen done and diluted, that second and third-act decisions to examine cults, vaguely explained religious subtext and historical relevance, and things that go bump in the night downplay some of the profound material we start out seeing. Collette and Wolff remain unwavering in both their talent and their commitment to their bone-chilling roles, but Aster's shift feels like a move to make his (Rosemary's) baby more commercial in a way that I'm sure will discourage those wanting more tone-play and "real" horror as opposed to the overblown inclusions that yet again resurface here.
Even when Hereditary is treading on being average, it's better at disguising itself as "above average" whereas many supernatural thrillers just hope they're merely competent during third-act lunacy. The exceptional work of Yun, Pogorzelski, Stetson, and Aster remains top-notch even if Aster's pen wanders into marginally insufficient territory. Ultimately, it's not enough to discourage anyone interested in seeing a film that's this uniformly impressive.