Movie Review: “Hereditary”

09 June, 2018

Hereditary movie poster

Movie Review: Hereditary

Good afternoon y’all,

Today, I’m going to tell you about the movie I saw Thursday night, Hereditary. (I wrote another pre-watching post about it a couple days ago, here.) In short: it was deeply unsettling, it was original, and I absolutely loved it.

Hereditary Facts and Major Credits:

Premiere: 21 January 2018 at Sundance / 8 June 2018 in theatres nationwide.

Director: Ari Aster

Producers: Kevin Frakes, Lars Knudsen, Buddy Patrick

Written by: Ari Aster

Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolf, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Byrne

Music by: Colin Stetson

Cinematography: Pawel Pogorzelski

Edited by: Jennifer Lame, Lucian Johnston

Production Companies: PalmStar Media, Finch Entertainment, Windy Hill Pictures

Distributed by: A24

Running time: 127 minutes

Budget: $10 million

Hereditary family picture

(This will be a spoiler-free review.)

“Evil runs in the family …”

Premise:

The film follows the Graham family, consisting of mother Annie, (Toni Collette,) her husband Steve, (Gabriel Byrne,) and their two teenage kids, Peter (Alex Wolf) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro.)

Annie is a professional miniaturist with a deeply troubled childhood and young-adulthood, Steve is maybe retired (? It’s not clear what his profession is, but he seems learned,) Peter is a somewhat uneasy but generally norma weed-smoking high-schooler, and Charlie is a lonely and generally “troubled” 13-year old who draws and makes sculptures out of random junk and animal parts.

The story begins when Annie’s mother, Ellen, dies after a devastating bout with dementia. (The film opens with her obituary and funeral.) We learn immediately that Annie and her mom were on-and-off estranged, and this has something to do with Ellen’s eccentric behaviors and controlling attitude. Of course, we gradually get some disturbing elaboration on this as the film progresses.

So, Annie isn’t particularly broken up about her mother’s passing. Nor are the rest of her family…except, that is, for Charlie, in whom Ellen took an especially keen interest when the teen was growing up.

The family matriarch’s death is the spark that ignites a slow-burning, but constantly dreadful and ultimately, satisfyingly horrific inferno of family secrets, buried memories, twisted compulsions, and paranormal catastrophes.

picture of Peter freaking out

Why it’s one of the scariest movies in years:

It’s hard to talk about this movie in much depth without spoilers! But allow me to elaborate on why Hereditary had me on the edge of my seat and has haunted me for the past three days.

This movie does not rely on jump scares. Does it have jump scares? Well, it is a horror movie. But me saying for sure would be spoilers, so draw your own conclusions. This is a movie of dread, of suspense, of disturbing revelations, psychic and physical.  And yes, also, horrific imagery, and the prudent use of special effects. Aster’s film teases the viewer with hints of boiler-plate horror movie scares, motifs, and plot points, but then flips those expectations on their heads: as a result, the viewer is constantly on edge, creeping and feeling slowly their way across a dark room of hidden perils and creaking floorboards. The disturbing implications and played-with expectations, plus gruesome scenes (never gore just for the sake of gore) and frightening supernatural occurrences, are what make Hereditary so genuinely staggering and haunting.

The story itself is scary. That may sound simplistic and obvious, but contrast it with a more mainstream horror movie you’ve seen, where the dread and surprise the audience experiences is derived 90% from special effects and jump scares, and only 10% from the actual motivations, emotions, and obstacles the characters experience, all knocking against each other and weaving themselves into a plot. In Hereditary, that plot is genuinely unsettling: it keeps you uneasy with the uncertainty of what’s going to happen next, and with the sheer horror of what has already happened. In the film’s beginning, we share Annie’s dread, when she’s so haunted by the feeling that her dead mother is “still around” that she insists on keeping the door to Mom’s room locked at all times, especially after it’s mysteriously opened by itself. Later, as the strands of this family’s rotten web of inherited secrets are untangled and brought to shocking light at an accelerating pace, we constantly want to look away, but we cannot: the plot has its hooks in us, and our emotions and curiosity compel us to keep watching, just as Annie must uncover the truth of her late mother’s strange behaviors and social circle, and what these mean for Annie and her own daughter, Charlie …

picture of Toni Collette as Annie

The cinematography is also top-notch. The camera in Hereditary is dynamic in the truest sense. It is practical. It doesn’t default to shaking about as a cheap method of adding jitters to a scary scene, but rather, it moves or stands still, gives us a wide shot or a close-up, as appropriate for what the director needs to convey. We get objectively lovely establishing shots of the mountains and forests of Utah that surround the Grahm family home, (and treehouse,) but these repeated landscape images almost immediately feel ominous and grow more so as time creeps on. The camera tortures us with uncomfortable close-ups of a character’s horrified face, before we inevitably, we know, must see what they are seeing. The camera swings from side to side nervously, both in emotionally torturous familial outbursts and in nervously surveying a room where supernatural events are afoot.

One of the most creepily charming camera-uses is the frequent focus on Annie’s miniature dioramas, which depict detailed and realistic scenes of the family’s home, the hospital where Annie’s mother died, and other tiny representations of the family’s past, present…and perhaps more. There are some technically awesome shots where the camera zooms slowly into one of these miniatures, and then graces us with a seamless transition into a real-life set with the actors.

The acting in Hereditary is stellar and brings director Ari Aster’s dark vision to life with heart-wrenching, spine-tingling, and heart-pounding authenticity. Toni Collette, to my mind, handily steals the show– no, steal isn’t the right word, she earns every second of our attention, empathy, and investment: she beautifully portrays  a complex mother and daughter character, with the best of intentions but the least capacity to deal with what both her loss, and the peculiar “inheritance” of her mother are going to inflict on herself, her husband, and her children. Her range of emotion is staggering, from protective and loving, to heart-broken, to sarcastic, to manic and enraged. Collete’s Annie is very scared, and very scary …

Milly Shapiro, who plays young teen daughter Charlie, stands out for her newness and for her at-once creepy and charmingly awkward and sympathetic demeanor as the most emphasized character from the trailers. This emphasis is for good reason. That’s all I’ll say on that.

picture of Charlie

It’s tough to even talk about Ann Dowd’s character without spoilers, but she’s good. She’s convincing, she’s real. (In the trailer, she’s the woman who talks to Annie in her car; “I recognized you from your mother.”)

The fellas, Alex Wolf and Gabriel Byrne, also exhibit great emotional range and authenticity, as their respective characters, each with their own distinct attitudes and goals, are sucked into the story of maternal-bloodline disintegration and corruption.

Hereditary movie poster 2

Conclusion:

The writing and directing of director Ari Aster, combined with the technically skilled and emotionally interesting cinematography of Pawel Pogorzelski, plus the torturously authentic acting of the stars, especially Toni Collette, altogether make Hereditary already one of my favorite horror movies, and the best movie I’ve seen yet this year.

I give it a 10/10.

It’s intriguing. It’s painfully suspenseful. It’s emotionally genuine. And most importantly, but also properly developed from all those other traits: Hereditary is horrifying. It says something about parenthood (especially motherhood,) about the ties that bind family bloodlines, and about the ways that we as mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, react to the disruption, loss, and poisoning of those bloodlines.

The scariest stories, Hereditary proves, are those with one foot firmly planted in the reality we all inhabit.

 

 

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