I passed on checking out Hereditary during its theatrical run so I would be afforded the luxury of taking a break if things got too intense. And I’m glad I did. It’s a beautiful film but it’s also a bit like a gut punch followed by a series of even harder gut punches. The ability to watch and digest the flick at home allowed me to get the most out of it and also the chance to revisit a couple of pivotal sequences for this critique.
Hereditary tells the story of a family torn apart by grief by way of a string of successive tragedies. Matriarch, Annie (Toni Collette of The Sixth Sense) is processing through the loss of her mother when she and her family are rocked by yet another profound and unspeakable loss.
The above synopsis doesn’t even begin to prepare you for what this film has in store for you. It’s a brutal tour de force of emotions. And that’s putting it mildly. But what stood out most to me were the incredible performances from all of the key players.
Gabrielle Byrne (End of Days) plays slightly against type in his turn as Annie’s husband, Steve. Steve is a somewhat disheveled looking, bookish sort. But, in spite of portraying a character that is a little different than we’re used to seeing the actor play, Byrne’s performance is more than believable. He easily steps into the role of stoic, long suffering spouse and keeps things grounded when all hell breaks loose.
Alex Wolff (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and newcomer Milly Shapiro both turn in superb performances as Annie and Steve’s children. Both successfully (and seemingly effortlessly) convey the effects their mother’s frequent instability has had on their lives over the years.
However, the real star of the show is the ever-versatile Toni Collette. The actress turned in a truly arresting and often gut-wrenching performance. I suspect she had to go to some very dark places to bring Annie to life but her hard work paid off in spades. The scenes following the second loss depicted in the film were so realistic that they it took me to a profoundly uncomfortable place. Collette’s performance has already been hailed as Oscar-worthy by several critics and I must agree. She really put her heart and soul into this role.
Grief is a major theme throughout Hereditary. And as someone who is still processing through the loss of a spouse two years ago, this film hit really close to home. It was so intense at times that I really appreciated the ability to stop watching and come back to it. Toni Collette (seemingly) effortlessly embodies what loss looks and feels like in this film.
Many of the atrocities and different forms of evil that the family in Hereditary encounter work very well as a metaphor for grief and effectively demonstrate the way it can tear a family apart if not dealt with in a constructive manner.
Also working in the film’s favor is the exceptionally intense and frightening atmosphere established by first time feature film helmer, Ari Aster. The director achieves a near perfect balance of jump scares and legitimate, balls-to-the-wall frights. By the end of the film, the tension was utterly palpable. I could barely sit still.
Throughout the process of creating atmosphere and a mounting sense of tension, Ari Aster also (beautifully) utilizes silence. It’s not nearly as widely relied upon as it was in the outstanding A Quiet Place, but it is nonetheless effective and of great benefit to the creation of the film’s atmosphere.
Aster also deserves props for penning a first rate screenplay. He avoids a lot of the pitfalls to which industry newcomers frequently succumb. There’s no clunky exposition that feels shoehorned in. Aster smartly delivers expository dialogue through an exchange Annie has with a grief support group. It feels natural and not forced and it serves to enhance the story as well as delivering information to the viewer. In addition to great dialogue, Aster has scripted his characters to feel like real people with realistic problems. The audience almost instantly feels a connection to each and every character.
Hereditary absolutely does not feel like the effort of a first time filmmaker. And perhaps some of that is due to the fact that Aster had an impressive number of shorts under his belt prior to tackling this picture. If this is indicative of what’s to come, Aster is a force to be reckoned with and a talent to be watched. I am anxious to see where he takes us with his next horror effort, Midsommar.
In addition to great performances, smart direction, and artfully crafted atmosphere, Hereditary also boasts beautiful set design. The family home where the majority of the film takes place is absolutely breathtaking. It is beautiful, rustic, but (appropriately to the themes at play in the film) doesn’t really feel lived in.
If you missed Hereditary during its theatrical bow, make haste to check it out on home video. The film is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and DigitalHD. The Blu-ray isn’t exactly loaded with special features but it does include a featurette, an image gallery, and deleted scenes.
For a dramatically different take on the film, see James Swift’s review from Hereditary‘s theatrical release: Hereditary is Overrated and Doesn’t Live Up to the Hype
WICKED RATING: 10/10
Director(s): Ari Aster
Writer(s): Ari Aster
Stars: Toni Collette, Gabrielle Byrne, Alex Wolff, and Milly Shapiro
Release: September 4 (Home Video)
Studio/ Production Co: A24, LionsGate
Budget: $10 Million (estimated)