The extraordinary Hereditary sends family dysfunction to Hell and back
Family dysfunction has been a narrative device for as long as stories have been told. We don't choose our family, after all, and the discontentment, anxiety, and anger that can come with that is something many of us learn to accept or cast out through expression. But even when we don't, and that feeling builds into something horrible, we never consider the horror of what could be bubbling underneath. Film often does, and Hereditary explores the dark depths of the complexities of family to horrifying and extraordinary effect.
Hereditary follows the Grahams, a family left in detached mourning after the death of their strange matriarch Ellen. In the wake of her death, the family begins to experience increasingly strange events which send their already precarious family dynamic into chaos. Grave desecration, shocking accidents, roaring family spats, and seances are only appetizers leading to a final main course that is as wild and disturbing as you can get on the modern cinema screen.
Leading the cast is mother Annie, played by the always electrifying Toni Collette (Little Miss Sunshine), whose sizzling demeanor only grows more fiery as the family is subjected to deeper and deeper terror. Much of her resentment is inherited from the pain inflicted upon her by her dead mother, an aching hatred Collette dutifully brings to life. Collette is marvelous and commanding in every scene she's in, painting a portrait of a tortured woman who loves her family but perhaps obsesses too much over controlling them, evident in her frankly creepy job as a miniature artist who recreates scenes from her own life. She's no Mommie Dearest, a character trope Hollywood has latched onto in horror pictures ever since that film's release. With skills she has exuded for her entire career, Collette brings layers and humanity to what could otherwise be the sort of role that's dismissed as caricature.
While Collette is the star attraction, her supporting actors are just as scenery-chewing in their roles here. Gabriel Bryne (The Usual Suspects), playing a frustrated and helpless father, brings a quiet emotional backbone to this increasingly decaying family dynamic with the sort of grace he exhibited for years on HBO's In Treatment. He is an excellent foil to Collette, serving as a sort of surrogate for the audience but finding far more depth in that role than is expected. Alex Wolff (My Friend Dahmer), whose career has been heating up as of late, gives a star-making performance as the eldest child Peter, exhibiting a exacerbation and raw physicality that makes the film feel all the more frighteningly real. Who will really stick with you is young Molly Shapiro, whose role as the Graham's eccentric daughter Charlie will come to be known as a iconic horror performance, the sort of character whose very essence lurks in the corners of your dark room when you get home from the cinema. Starring in her first film role, Shapiro demands your attention in every frame, excellently giving off the strangeness needed to make this role (and essentially the film as whole) work.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Hereditary is the writer-director behind it, Ari Aster. Aster may be putting out his debut feature-length film here, but he commands the complexities demanded by his script with a grace seen only in the most seasoned masters. With some fine help from Pawel Pogorzelski in the cinematography department, Aster crafts a slow-building nightmare that shakes you so deeply because he allows the camera to lurk and build dread in you before the real horror even comes into fruition. From the film's very first moments, something feels very, very wrong, and it's because Aster has the patience to let fear grow in you naturally. He's masterful and sadistic in that way, which is exactly what you want from a horror director.
While the film is more emotionally affecting and disturbing than it truly is "scary", Hereditary is set to be a true horror classic because it deals in the horror of the things that lie beneath. Like its Old English counterpart and fellow A24 release The Witch, the film works because it chooses to shine a light at the darkness lurking behind what is familiar to us: family and what we inadvertently inherit from it. While that darkness may manifest in ways more supernatural than what we will ever experience, it's hard not to feel the quiet familial discomfort you or those closest to you have known in the events that play out here.
That dread is what makes horror films, and Hereditary, so vital.