Toni Collette stars as Annie, an artist and mother who is introduced attending her mother’s funeral. Annie has an outgoing, teen stoner son (played by a very good Alex Wolff), a younger, introverted, socially awkward daughter (played by a mesmerizing Milly Shapiro) and a stoic, fed-up husband (played by a typically glum Gabriel Byrne). Annie’s art is expressed through eerie miniature models of occurrences from her life, which suggest both a unique talent and a queasy means of art therapy. When another truly awful incident rattles her family once again, it stirs the really bad things that seem to be quietly waiting for the family in the shadows.
Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” is a feature-length writer/directorial debut that proves the filmmaker is one to watch and loves the horror genre. Aster has clearly sat through a lot of scary movies, pays tribute to some well known classics and is especially intelligent with how he guides the camera. That said, this is a film I admired for its excellent cinematography and performances but didn’t enjoy and wouldn’t recommend to anyone. In fact, I’d never watch it again, as it doesn’t offer anything I haven’t seen before and done better.
“Hereditary” is strikingly similar to Robert Eggers’ “The Witch,” which was equally impressive production-wise but also unsatisfying and off-putting as a story. Both works especially fall short when they literalize a supernatural threat and push too hard to get a reaction. Aster’s film is especially guilty of this. Note the shattering first act tragedy: The moment (which I won’t describe) is created by fixing the camera on a numb reaction shot, following an unnerving sound effect. It’s a haunting bit. Moments later, Aster decides to show us exactly what took place, fixating on a grotesque prop for so long, we sense him trying too hard to shake us. He should have trusted his initial instinct to only suggest the horror. Later in the film, Aster again earns chills by suggesting a horrible act through sound effects but then goes the obvious route by showing up close what someone is doing to their neck. For all the artful touches visible, Aster doesn’t know when to pull his punches. The absurd final scene is especially guilty of this.
Horror fans ought to welcome Aster, whose screenplay explores the universal fear of children inheriting the worst aspects of their family history. It’s also flush with bits that were done better in “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Sentinel,” “The Exorcist III” and even the recent “Ouija: Origin of Evil.” Anyone who remembers a certain movie about the dangers of trusting tannis root will find the conclusion too on the nose and familiar.
Collette’s overwhelming, steadily building intensity is the driving force of her remarkable, Oscar-worthy performance. Shapiro is a real find and Ann Dowd (so incredible in “The Handmaid’s Tale”) does a lot with a supporting turn. Yet, the characterizations are limited, as we only see the main characters in different stages of gloominess. So little is required of Byrne, his character could easily have been written out of the movie.
I love horror movies. This one made me uncomfortable and filled me with dread, but isn’t scary. For better or worse, Aster’s debut is like an American Bergman film, as the emphasis is on regret, anguish and self destructive behavior above all else. I won’t forget this one but found the technique outdistanced the screenplay.
“Hereditary” is unrelentingly grim and skillfully woven but more of a placeholder for whatever Aster’s next film holds. I’ll see a movie that will inevitably touted as made “From The Director of Hereditary.” I’ll also assume that, after getting our attention the first time, he’ll follow up with a much better movie.
Two and a Half Stars
–originally published in Maui Time Weekly