Hereditary is a gauntlet of a picture. Yes, it’s a slow-burn build that spins into a relentless third reel of genre goodies, but it’s also an insular portrait of a family spiraling through profound grief. And that grind may well be more punishing than the elements of terror that eventually come to pass.
We meet the Graham family — Annie (Toni Collette), Steve (Gabriel Byrne), Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro) — as they prepare to leave for a funeral. Or rather as Steve chivies his children out of bed and into presentable clothes while Annie waits, fully dressed in the car, steeling herself to speak about her mother. When she does, she calls her difficult, secretive and private, a reference to the private rituals, mysterious relationships that marked the matriach’s life and left a long estrangement between them.
From there, we sit with the family in their grief, and even as their communication breaks down, everything begins to unspiral around them, slowly revealing a dark truth at the core of their ancestry. Ari Aster’s script is deliberately difficult, he draws out moments of agony to the point of unbearable, then reels you back in with an unimaginable development or a spark of humanity.
Unsurprisingly, all of this succeeds or fails with Toni Collette. She’s been widely touted as the soul of this movie, and she more than delivers. Even though I felt none of the terror I hoped I might find here (I’m broken), I was in a constant state of suspense and utterly unable to look away from anything Toni Collette did, even when I desperately wanted to do so. The range she brings to bear in this performance is astonishing, it’s only too bad that even the new Academy seems unlikely to reward a work that goes as aggressively genre as Hereditary eventually does.
Alex Wolff also deserves a great deal of credit for repeatedly devastating the audience. If Toni Collette is the soul of Hereditary, Alex Wolff is it’s broken and bleeding heart. Meanwhile, Milly Shapiro defies her reputation as a bubbly Broadway star as she becomes a classically unsettling child of horror at a mere glance. Where Collette and Wolff use their faces to convey the multitudes that are unsaid, Shapiro infuses her whole being with Charlie. Whatever else you think of the picture, the work being done here is undeniable — and we haven’t even gotten to Ann Dowd’s characteristically brilliant supporting turn.
Hereditary doesn’t lean on gore or jump scares, it takes its time sinking into your mind before it makes the shift to overt horror. And while the closing act is a ride unlike any other you’re liable to take this year, it’s the delicious build-up to those events that lingers after like some unfulfilled spirit.
Director: Ari Aster
Writer: Ari Aster
Runtime: 2h 7mins
Release date: June 8, 2018
Main image credit: James Minchin, courtesy of A24