18th Jun2018

‘Hereditary’ Review #2

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Toni Collette, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Christy Summerhays, Morgan Lund, Mallory Bechtel, Jake Brown, Jarrod Phillips, Ann Dowd, Brock McKinney | Written and Directed by Ari Aster

Hereditary-poster

Some critics might turn their nose up at the idea that 30-year-old Ari Aster’s debut film should be mentioned in the same breath as the greats of horror. But Aster is clearly a genre fan. With Hereditary, he’s borrowing the possession aspects of The Exorcist; the elemental grief of Don’t Look Now; the parental anxiety of Rosemary’s Baby; the maternal madness of Images; the familial holocaust of The Shining; and the generational violence of Psycho.

The result is a distressing and exhausting piece of work, as subversive (in its own way) as last year’s horror breakout, Jordan’s Peele’s Get Out; although it’s probably closer in tone and pacing to Robert Eggers’ The Witch. Watch the trailer at your leisure, safe in the knowledge that it spoils nothing. Hereditary is a consistently surprising beast.

The film opens with an obituary for Grandma Graham. Evidently a private and difficult person, her passing is met with an apparent lack of grief from the family. The father, Steve Graham (Gabriel Byrne), tries to gently prompt the sadness from his wife and kids, but each of them retreats.

13-year-old Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is intensely disturbed. Older brother Peter (Alex Wolff) is similarly introverted; distant and distracted. Their mother, Annie (Toni Collette), is more open to her shock, even attending a grief therapy session, in which she reveals that the family has a history of mental illness. It’s here we begin to learn of the horrifyingly ambivalent feelings Annie feels toward her own family.

Annie is working on a museum piece: a miniature recreation of various rooms and scenes from the family’s life. The house itself; the hospital room where Peter was born; the scene of some tragedy. It literalises the sense that we the audience are experiencing: that the family is being watched over by something powerful and unseen. The ghosts of Grahams past, perhaps.

What gradually occurs may be Steve’s fault. Ostensibly the sensible, calm patriarch, he’s actually afraid of confrontation – and his decision to shut down the arguing between his wife and son is devastating. In silence and solitude, both Annie and Peter convince themselves to distrust – maybe even hate – the other.

In a household without communication – perhaps in a world without God – where does our grief and resentment and anger go? It stays within us, festers, and then emerges in some terrible violent way. This is a film first and foremost about grief, and only then a genre piece indulging in trope satisfaction. Much of the horror is in the dialogue, which captures the dark magic of a family conversing without communicating.

Hereditary isn’t an aggressively frightening film, or a startling one (although it does earn itself one of the greatest jump scares I’ve ever seen), but it left me with such a feeling of existential anxiety that the world looked different outside. It made me feel unsafe.

Aster’s use of wide shots, opening out the dim space behind characters, is extraordinarily unsettling. Aster has a penchant for placing potential menaces in the corners of our perception, revelling in the everyday horror of shapes in a half-lit room. Did we see a figure, or was it simply clothes hanging on a chair? Crash cuts are largely eschewed in favour of dawning horror. And that feeling clings to us.

Likewise, the sound design is a work of manipulative art, dragging our attention this way and that, making us distrustful. With a nervous and overactive audience, the idea of using a single sound – a playful “cluck” – to represent the (metaphorical) monster is a potentially infuriating act of genius. Meanwhile, Colin Stetson’s doom-heavy music, while at times a little over-insistent, does a great job of rendering normality as something dreadful.

This being as much a family drama as a horror film, performances are key, and Collette delivers a career-best. Annie represents the frustrating extremes of mental illness: refreshingly down-to-earth one minute and impossibly fraught the next. That she can elicit sympathy from a story about dowsing her children with paint thinner is testament to her talent.

But without the ensemble, Collette’s efforts would be wasted. Thankfully, Aster has found a real gem in the form of Shapiro, who does an astonishing job of giving Charlie an inner world with minimal dialogue. Byrne’s exasperated father figure brings wit and pathos to the increasingly abstract events. And Wolff plays Peter to perfection. There’s something tragic about watching a young man dragged from the carefree bosom of his friendship group back into a toxic family.

The family’s interactions unleash a dark and deeply ironic humour at the heart of Aster’s film, reminiscent of the cynicism of Roman Polanski. The scene where the family are forced to perform a séance – “I don’t know what language this is!” – is as funny as it is traumatising.

If I were to cite one area where the film disappoints, it would be the way the courage of its conviction falters in the final act. Relenting to a (supposed) need for clear exposition toward the end, its explanations feel somewhat on-the-nose and over-egged. A climactic gathering feels like it goes on a few minutes too long, as if Aster is desperate to provide absolute clarity. It feels unnecessary.

But it’s not enough to undo the astonishingly rich, layered and patient work that’s gone into the film up until that point – indeed, more straightforward horror scares are well-earned by that point. Hereditary is a powerful and unforgettable piece of myth-making, which may have introduced a new master to the screen. Or, like Richard Kelly, it’s a one-hit wonder. I hope it’s the former. Either way, we have ourselves a potential classic.

Hereditary is out in cinemas now.

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