Rot in the family treeAnnie Graham (Toni Collette) has just lost her mother, but isn’t sure if her response to the passing has been entirely appropriate: Is she sad enough? You see, Ellen had been a very difficult and secretive person while alive, as Annie reveals to her fellow mourners at the funeral (many of whom she admits, with a touch of suspicion, to never having seen before), with “private rituals, private friends, private anxieties,” and mother and daughter had clearly not been close for a long time, if ever at all.
Annie Graham (Toni Collette) has just lost her mother, but isn’t sure if her response to the passing has been entirely appropriate: Is she sad enough? You see, Ellen had been a very difficult and secretive person while alive, as Annie reveals to her fellow mourners at the funeral (many of whom she admits, with a touch of suspicion, to never having seen before), with “private rituals, private friends, private anxieties,” and mother and daughter had clearly not been close for a long time, if ever at all. For reasons not greatly elaborated upon, Annie—an artist who creates miniature doll-house dioramas based on her own life—had kept husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and firstborn Peter (Alex Wolff) at a deliberate distance from her mother’s influence, but daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) had somehow managed to slip through. Indeed, Charlie—a young girl with her own bizarre, oftentimes morbid, private rituals—is the only one of them visibly grieving for the old lady.
But even as the family tries to put Ellen’s death behind them and resume their everyday routines, something is clearly altered in the Graham homestead. Slowly but surely, strange and shadowy events begin to unfold, one after the other—leading up to an unspeakable tragedy that leaves already-strained relationships between the family members rapidly fraying in its wake, setting long-ago resentments aflame, and rendering the very air in the house taut with tension.
A broken Annie seeks solace in the company of Joan (Ann Dowd), a woman she befriends at a grief-counseling session, who encourages her to attempt to establish contact with the spirit world as a means to healing and closure. Of course, I don’t have to tell you this proves to be a bad, bad idea (the very fact of Dowd’s casting should be indication enough, tbh), and only ends up intensifying the nightmare that the Grahams find themselves caught in.
The new Hereditary is writer-director Ari Aster’s first feature film; prior to this, he had been focused solely on shorts, most memorably 2011’s The Strange Thing About the Johnsons. Much like that darkly unsettling debut, Hereditary too is heavy on atmospherics and mood, designed more to wring terror out of seemingly innocuous, everyday situations rather than by piling on overt supernatural antics. With this approach, it is very much of a piece with numerous films that form part of what is being dubbed a ‘new wave’ in horror—entries such as The Witch, It Follows, Get Out and A Quiet Place—that are determinedly challenging genre clichés and conventions and turning out more inventive stuff. While not entirely as effective as some of its above mentioned contemporaries—primarily the fault of a disappointing final act that undermines the good work preceding it—Hereditary still makes for an exciting watch overall, not least due to the efforts of a fantastic cast, particularly one Ms Collette.
As evident from its title, Hereditary is centred on the concept of inheritance by blood, predispositions of body and mind that are transmitted across generations, which the film posits as being pretty much inescapable. While the script initially appears to equate these family demons with mental illness—a scene early on has Annie inventorising a variety of disorders that have long cast a pall on her family—these shadows eventually come to take on literal, terrifying form. In the tussle between nature vs nurture, then, one hardly needs to question which side Hereditary subscribes to. This capitulation to genetics as destiny is a motif that runs through the film, allegorised most notably in Annie’s painstakingly detailed handiwork: miniaturised toy worlds that serve to convey both the Grahams’ powerlessness in the larger scheme of things, as well as Annie’s desperate attempts to maintain some semblance of control over her own fate.
What is ultimately most frightening here, and thereby Hereditary’s biggest achievement, is how convincingly it is able to suggest that one’s family and home—people and places that you normally associate with safety and protection from the big, bad world outside—could turn out to be the actual threats. It’s in the portrayal of that gradual breakdown of trust between the Grahams, the irreversible disintegration of seemingly sacred familial ties—and the sheer disbelief and disorientation that these breaks give rise to, in both characters and viewers alike—that Aster is most adept. Where do you go when your own turn against you?
Given this kind of lead up, it’s a shame that the final chapter of the film, when all the pieces finally come together, doesn’t have the expected punch. The grand explanation offered for all the troubles the Grahams have had heaped upon them all this while feels a bit…well… silly, if I’m being honest. Of course, this might be owing in part to my lack of familiarity with the figures at the centre of the mythology, but even so, it’s all too on-the-nose, too finicky compared to what’s come before, with the result that you sit there, stunned, as the credits roll, but probably not in the manner that was intended.
Thankfully, Aster has the backing of a group of terrific actors who are able to ride out all of the script’s bumps, including that ending. Debutante Shapiro makes the most of her unconventional looks, utterly convincing as the awkward, unreadable Charlie, her mind and motivations a complete mystery. Wolff is more accessible, easier to empathise with, and the young actor well communicates his character’s growing confusion and feelings of betrayal. But Hereditary could very well be retitled The Toni Collette Show for the way it functions; versatile as ever, she is a force to be reckoned with here, her features a landscape of shifting, clashing emotions: guilt, resentment, anger, terror, pain. It’s hard to take your eyes—or indeed your ears—off of her.
So while Hereditary didn’t scare me to the extent that I’d hoped (or feared), it’s definitely worth a watch, if only to see the kind of surprising, unexpected directions horror has the capacity to be twisted in by the right filmmaker—in the hands of an actress at the top of her game.
Director: Ari Aster
Actors: Toni Collette, Milly
Shapiro, Alex Wolff