Nothing can truly prepare for you what you’re getting into with Hereditary. No review can do it justice. No word of mouth can set the stage. Hereditary is a work of such brutal discomfort that it is something you can only experience for yourself.
I can tell you that it’s the first work of cinematic horror in my adult life that made me fast walk down a darkened hallway. I can tell you that it’s been three days since I’ve seen it and I’m still not quite over it. I can tell you that it has burrowed its way into my psyche and darkened my soul.
But that’s all abstract, isn’t it? It feels that way to me, anyway. Any effort I make to discuss or analyze this movie—I’ve started this review four times now, erasing each effort—feels like a pale simulacrum, platitudinal and meaningless.
Hereditary is a work of such singular horror that there is no proper way to review it. It is an unrelentingly creepy film that stands firmly next to generational standard bearers like The Exorcist or The Shining. It is malicious in its approach and absolutely unhinged.
Most directors spend entire careers trying to reach the heights that writer/director Ari Aster has attained here, but Aster did it right out of the gate. His first feature, Hereditary feels like the throwing of a gauntlet or a statement of intent. He isn’t here to play or to compromise. He is here to personally attack those among us—myself included—who believe that horror isn’t scary anymore. He is here to prove that a horror can be both atmospheric and genuinely terrifying. At this he succeeds wildly.
Immediately impressive is his cast, which includes the likes of Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne, massive gets for a feature debut, though it certainly speaks to Aster’s talent as both a writer and director. Why else would such accomplished actors—each with a Golden Globe—take the risk on working with untested director? Certainly Aster’s short films have garnered him some praise over the years, but features and shorts are different beasts. What works for one won’t necessarily work for the other.
Thankfully, Aster seems to have proven himself a master at what he does, and what he does is make the audience squirm in misery while delighting in the ride. As assaulted as I felt by Hereditary—which gives the viewer no time to breathe, choosing instead for a slow and steady build of creeping dread—I found myself equally mesmerized by Aster’s spell, which works in no small part due to his cast.
Collette plays artist Annie Graham, whose abusive mother has recently passed away. We never learn much about what ultimately caused the schism between the matriarch and her daughter, but it’s clear that some sort of abuse and trauma took place. Aster’s script masterfully utilizes the secret lexicon of the formerly abused, giving us small glimpses into Annie’s past which slowly come into play as the film moves on.
Her mother’s death initially brings Annie’s family—her husband Steve (Byrne), her son Peter (Alex Wolff), and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro)—closer together but quickly the cracks in the familial foundation begin to show. On one level, Hereditary plays out like a War of the Roses riff, exploring the rifts of modern familial dynamics that reveal the hidden horrors within.
Like his shorts, The Strange Thing About the Johnsons and Munchausen, Aster plays well in this sandbox, slowly pulling his cords tighter and tighter until the tension threatens to snap everyone in two. But the more we see, the more we become aware of something sinister in the air. The script masterfully keeps us off balance, preventing us from knowing if we’re seeing something real or some sick delusion (or, if delusional, whose delusion we might be seeing).
Part of what makes Hereditary so unsettling is its stubborn refusal to reveal what subgenre its playing in. Is it a psychological horror? A standard haunted house? A possession thriller? Something else? As soon as you think you’ve got a handle on what this movie is and what it’s trying to accomplish, it suddenly switches gears and begins playing in an entirely different milieu. This approach allows Aster to mix and match tropes to fit his ultimate aim, and while we might not always be shocked by what comes next, we’re often surprised by why it happens.
This unbalanced approach to story telling is perfectly matched by Aster’s cast, who seem to all implicitly trust their leader and are willing to follow him down his terrifying rabbit hole to Hell. It’s a shame that awards so often ignore the accomplishments of genre films because there isn’t a single performance here that is unworthy of even an Oscar. Collette, especially, puts in the most serious work of her already accomplished career. So intense is her performance that I fear being terrified by her mere presence in a movie from here on out.
Her abilities here are shocking, and she often switches gears with little or no warning. She is hypnotic on the screen, pulling you into this world of sheer evil crafted by Aster and her performance will forever haunt you. She’s matched perfectly with Wolff, and the two play well with Aster’s themes of trauma and abuse to horrifying ends. But while the film certainly explores the generational spiral of abuse, that isn’t its ultimate goal. No, Aster has designs much deeper than that.
It’s best you don’t read about them here, or anywhere. This is a film whose shocking moments are shocking not because they happen, but for why they do and what they cause. Hereditary is a masterwork of horror that will infect you, staying inside your brain and taking up residence in your soul. Terrifying. Mesmerizing. Beautiful. Haunting. I’ve never seen anything quite like it and, quite frankly, I kind of hope I never have to again.
Hereditary is now preying in theaters everywhere.