Stunning 'Hereditary' will stand test of time
Every so often, a directorial debut comes along that just so happens to be an instant classic. Such is the case with writer/director Ari Aster's family horror film "Hereditary," a sensation at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and one of the most bone-chillingly terrifying films to come along in quite some time — a masterpiece of film form and storytelling.
Starring the legendary Toni Collette, "Hereditary" is a horror film that harkens back to '70s classics like "Rosemary's Baby" in its slow burn, dread-filled narrative style. Aster parcels out the terror sparingly at first but uses camera movement, editing and sound design to create an atmosphere of such intense tension and dread that the smallest sounds and briefest of images startle and shock. You're in such a tense state that by the time the truly horrifying stuff gets going, you don't even know how to react.
"Hereditary" is most satisfying when you know as little as possible about the plot going in. Collette plays Annie, the matriarch of a family dealing with the repercussions that reverberate throughout their home after the death of her mother. After a difficult relationship and years of estrangement, Annie isn't quite sure how she feels about her mother's death, and so she focuses on her work as an artist, creating miniature tableaus, as well as her children — most importantly, her 13-year-old daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), an odd duck with a close connection to her grandmother.
In her eulogy, Annie describes her mother as a secretive person, with "secret rituals." And as she reckons with her passing, Aster slowly begins to peel back the layers on the family secrets. Odd occurrences start to pop up: Apparitions and tricks of the light and strange sounds. But what does it mean? Is it just the process of grief, or is something supernatural happening? The beginnings are simple, quotidian, and as a viewer you don't know whether to trust the characters or to even trust ourselves in what we see and hear.
Part of that is the masterful filmmaking by Aster. He manages to imbue scenes that would be rather mundane on paper with a breathless tension, simply through camerawork and a sound design and score by Colin Stetson that clucks, ticks and tap dances. Aster builds an almost unbearable sense of suspense throughout ostensibly straightforward scenes that are incredibly nerve-wracking, thanks to the filmmaking choices and especially the performances.
And oh, the performances. It's no surprise Collette is unbelievable as Annie, a woman who goes from a place of numb survival to manic hysteria, sometimes from moment to moment. Where other actresses would play a single note, Collette plays a symphony of emotions. She will nearly bring you to tears and then make you laugh before you know it. Academy Awards don't even feel like enough of a plaudit for this kind of performance.
Stepping right up there with her is Alex Wolff, who plays her teenage son, Peter. Wolff has put in the work, with 20 film credits from blockbusters to indies under his belt by age 21, but this feels like a true breakthrough role for him, as he goes toe-to-toe with Collette and just about walks away with the film.
"Hereditary" is about our legacies, the things we inherit — what we can't choose or give away or even escape. The idea of that can be chilling, and "Hereditary" pushes that concept right to the edge, and then all the way over it. It's a stunning debut from Aster, the kind that is going to stand the test of time.
Cast: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Gabriel Byrne, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd.
Directed by Ari Aster.
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes.
Rated R for horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use and brief graphic nudity.