It takes a special kind of film to get under your skin, to worm its way into your mind and test your mettle. It takes a special kind to leave lasting images, lasting moments that will take ages to wither away… but by then that movie will have found its way back into your life for a rewatch. Hereditary, the debut feature of Ari Aster, is such a film, taking a family and systematically tearing at its core after the death of a grandmother and beginning a journey into the soul.
Peter and Charlie Graham are the children of Annie and Steve Graham, living in a large house in the woods with a rather robust treehouse at its side. The death of Annie’s mother is almost a welcome sight for her as she focuses on her professional miniature model work; Charlie, though, her daughter, is distraught by the passing due to their closeness. As they try to move on with their lives, the cracks begin to form, the ones that were perhaps always there in the first place. The grave is desecrated, sleepwalking starts occurring again, deep personal wounds begin to open up again, but it’s in one scene in particular that the entire gravity of the movie changes.
The suddenness of this event, and how well it uses that scene to sink into your gut and make you feel something so sudden and so impactful, is masterfully directed and edited. Holding on to that character’s face as the realization dawns, the guilt, and the terror, is something that is just as terrifying as a boogeyman other horror films wish to use.
Toni Collette, as Annie, is at her absolute best in this film, portraying someone barely holding it together with grief and loss eating upon her and at a moment’s notice everything can snap. Her belief in what she is doing throughout the movie, on top of her despair and rising resentment and anger, gives so much for Collette to work with, and she handles it all perfectly. She sells this movie, and it is a great showcase for her.
Alex Wolff, as well, is great here as Peter. With smaller films beforehand, but with a sizeable role in last year’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Wolff is front and center here and plays a frightened and near-broken character almost too convincingly. His eyes are used to good effect, the center of the frame during key moments and really selling the dread.
Milly Shapiro, playing Charlie, is excellent in how she plays the curiosity of the character, even if that curiosity includes cutting a bird’s head clean off with a pair of scissors. Her clicks are certainly going to be a sound imitated for some time. Gabriel Byrne plays the father figure in a very subdued, nearly subtle performance, the care and tenderness he shows for his family and understanding (to a point) he shows when Annie needs to sleep somewhere else, is something that was a refreshing take.
The film makes excellent use of everyday nerves: the dark corner of a room looking a little like a person, a noise that reminds you of something that can trigger a memory best hoped forgotten, the concern of sleepwalking and what danger that can make someone, the ominous red light of the heaters pouring from the nearby treehouse, among other, more spoiler-ridden ones. The clicking, almost clucking sound Charlie makes is the most unsettling noise, and it is put to good use.
The sense of dread and the unsettling nature of the film leads down a path that could prove quite intense for some. There are some visuals and moments that will haunt you. Its use of background, while a character is in the foreground, is expertly executed. It does begin to lead down a more traditional horror path as the story continues, but that does not leave the uneasiness any less potent. It feels in tune with what had come before, about the soul of these characters and their mental states as worse and worse things occur to them. That’s where the true terror plays.
It’s placing trust in someone that is appearing untrustworthy, the abject horror of what is left unsaid and the destruction saying it can leave, the little secrets and the things passed on by our parents, that really gives Hereditary its strength. That power of taking the things normalcy can cause, and increasing the tension with the administering of traditional horror elements, leaves an impression that not many in its class have been able to do in recent years. Hereditary is a spectacular film, and will most certainly be on many top ten lists at year’s end.