Review: Hereditary

A devilishly good time in a cinema, Hereditary is a showcase for the bravura lead turn of Toni Collette and the arrival of first time film maker Ari Aster. Much has been made about how ‘scary’ this is, yet little attention is given to how blackly funny and gloriously off kilter the whole affair is. And it’s in the latter that makes Hereditary such a winner!

There’s plenty of social discourse flurrying around Hereditary after A24 (its U.S. distributor) blitzed a media campaign that used the critical traction to sell it as the scariest film on Earth (which it isn’t) and, in doing so, completely misdirected audiences into what the film actually is.

All points to them, the online critical and social currency it gave the movie is the stuff of dreams for film makers and distributors alike as it assures a strong(ish) opening. But what happens when the movie you think you’re going to see is nothing like the movie you were sold? The answer, in focus, is Hereditary.

Welcome to the dysfunctional well-to-do Graham family. We meet matriarch-and-gifted-modeler Annie (a career best Toni Collette) eulogising her recently passed mother as her detached husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), disaffected teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and budding-artist daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) sit with disinterest in the benches. An opening monologue that comes off more caustic and damning of the recently deceased sets the tone for this wrought tale where something at the very core of this family unit is not right. Set mostly with the walls of a monolithic and somewhat ominous household, Hereditary sets about unravelling its sinister plot…

Sidling itself much more in the world of arthouse than mainstream, what makes writer/director Ari Aster’s debut feature such a ride is how disciplined it is. Although this is a genre film, at the core of Hereditary is the story of a deeply damaged and emotionally dysfunctional family suffering at the hands of years of systematic neglect and abuse. Aster’s fearlessness in providing scenes of uncomfortable and cutting conversations, which allows for Toni Collette to absolutely shine, are a seat-shifting breath of cinematic fresh air. The beats in these exchanges bruisingly land and they are the film’s true anchor.

Added to that, and surprisingly not much has been said about this, is the film’s sense of humour. Hereditary covers some very dark terrain and is full of narrative devices designed to shock, but Aster never loses his hand in keeping it darkly comic all the way through. This author, dear reader, was giggling and sniggering with gay abandon throughout the 127 minute run time.

The film is beautifully (and artfully) constructed, thanks to assured cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski (iFeel), with a cold aesthetic that adds to the ominous undercurrent that runs through the feature. Hereditary feels empty, cold, vacant and shrouded in shadow. It’s an evocative visual cocktail, indeed.

Performances are solid yet all praise goes to Toni Collette who throws herself at the material with full gusto. Collette’s Annie is an emotional wreck and her descent into paranoia is palpable and energetically realised. Impressive, too, is newcomer Milly Shapiro, whose’s Charlie commands every frame she’s in.

If there are any hindrances to Hereditary, it’s in its pacing. The film’s momentum opens so strongly, and moves through its opening hour with to velocity of a freight train to a certain major plot point, then it shifts gear and slows itself down only to ramp it back up for the final act. It feels slightly uneven.

Is it scary? It sports some fun jump scares and unexpected turns which keep you invested, but maybe I am a battle-weary genre fan. It might give you the frightgasms you’re after – there’s only one way to find out. But, just because it wasn’t scary for me per se, doesn’t mean Hereditary is not entertaining, it surely is. There wasn’t a moment in the film that I wasn’t engaged.

More arthouse than haunted house, Hereditary wins on the grounds of its character work and willing to have those conversations none of us want to have. A meticulous construction of production design and cinematography add weight to proceedings, as does one of the finest lead performances of the year (which will most likely get ignored come awards time for the fact that this is a horror movie) from our very own Toni Collette. There’s a lot of fun to be had here. Don’t believe the hype, don’t watch the trailers, just go in blind and enjoy the ride!