Ari Aster for A24/ 127 min.
In the top ¾ of Hereditary, the filmmakers do an excellent job of capturing that moment, in the middle of the night, when you’re half-awake and see a shadow in the dark. Your heart stops and you’re paralyzed by fear. It’s the moment before you shake it off and realize it was just a dream. And at one point, Peter, portrayed by the talented actor Alex Wolff (easily confused with his brother, fellow actor Nate Wolff), tells himself, “Just gotta wake up.” But this isn’t a bad dream. It’s the derailment of what could have been a fantastic film.
To prevent all-out spoilers, I’ll simply say that there are parallels to be made with mother!, my least favorite movie of all time, and one that was also hyped unfairly by critics. To be fair, there are legitimate praises to be had for Hereditary. The film, like many others in the A24 cannon, features interesting shots and a dramatic plotline that is genre-crossing. The well-worn story of a family straining to cope with the grief associated with familial loss is relatable, and therefore, lends itself to elements of true terror. Watching Toni Colette’s character have a meltdown at the dinner table regarding said loss was the peak of this film for me. In a different universe, this could’ve been a magnetic story about how grief tears apart families. Watching the Graham family disintegrate was gripping and undeniable with a more-than-capable cast. But that’s not why the CinemaScore was low and it’s not why I’m giving it three out of five slashes.
Annie Graham, Hereditary’s living matriarch played by the inimitable Toni Colette, has made a career of creating meticulously-detailed architectural dioramas. She puts tiny people in tiny rooms and moves them around in accordance to her whims. The movie opens up on one such diorama, panning through the rooms until we enter the house in earnest. It’s an interesting technique that is well served, as any scene that takes place in the house feels like the viewer is trapped in the diorama, and purposefully so, as the set was built to form instead of using a traditional soundstage or actual house. Speaking to the effectiveness of that decision, there were times that I wanted to exit that house and make a run for it—it got very claustrophobic dealing with the complexities of a family struggling with untreated mental illnesses, grief and… the occult?
All photos courtesy of A24.
While there were certainly points of heart-stopping terror, there were also moments when the audience flat-out laughed at the absurdity of the eventual story direction. Although the celebrated cast all gave fantastic performances, the character I most enjoyed was Steve Graham (Gabriel Byrne). Steve was my rock through this break-neck ride. He asks logical questions of the rest of the family, such as “Why didn’t you call the police?” when a bat-shit discovery is made midway through the film. He looks at Toni Colette the way I might look at someone begging me to trust them with a bottle of lighter fluid in their shaky grasp: as if they are dangerous and need to seek help. Poor Steve embodied exactly how I felt watching this movie: helpless to stop the trainwreck that is Hereditary.