★★★ / ★★★★
Have you ever been in a place outside your home, maybe at work when you decide to come in an hour earlier or stay a little later than everyone else, and you know—or thought you knew—you’re alone in that space? Yet somehow you hear—or thought you heard—a noise from a several feet away, the sound subtle enough that it is near impossible to discern where it comes from exactly, that the first thing that comes to mind is perhaps you’re not as alone as you had initially thought. That sneaky and creepy vibe perfectly captures what “Hereditary” has to offer, written and directed by Ari Aster, a horror film that understands the many different definitions of the genre.
It works because it has a deep imagination—one that lasts until a disappointing final act so generic, I wished the writer-director had taken a final close look at the material and realized that his work, as a whole, is so much better than a series of would-be spooky images aimed to satisfy mainstream expectations. Here is a movie in which it is demanded that the conclusion not be explained because everything else that leads to it is detailed enough for viewers to be able to come up with their own conclusions. I argue that this is a rare case in which a project might have gotten away without a third act. It is that strong. To add more, as what happened ultimately, is to take away from that power. It would have been so daring.
The first half unfolds like an intense family drama that just happens to have horror elements in it. Frightening images are shown but they are mostly hidden in shadows. It drenches us with foreshadowing, right from the opening shot of a window with a random fly. We see markings etched on walls and wonder what they mean. The interior of the home offers such a cold and crippling look and feeling about it, during the exposition I had thought that the family were staying at their recently deceased relative’s house. It comes across as though they are not comfortable in a place where, in theory, they should be at peace. Because the characters do not feel at home, neither do we. And so we become alert to every possible turn of the plot. When day turns to night, we anticipate what might happen. Modern horror movies have conditioned us to expect something to occur. It plays with our expectations.
Toni Collette plays Annie, a wife of a patient husband (Gabriel Byrne) and a mother of two teenagers (Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro). It is one of Collette’s best roles and performances in years as she balances being beleaguered and fierce often in the same scene. While certain images are ugly and terrifying, like a corpse infested with ants, equally unpleasant is the manner in which the family interacts. While the unit is undergoing a state of grief, there are things they do or say that communicate to us that they do not like each other very much—even if the act of mourning were taken out completely. Still, they must co-exist under the same roof because they are blood. Collette is a master at playing subtlety but she is throughly capable of creating an explosion at a drop of a hat. There is a dinner scene that perfectly captures her raw power as a consummate performer.
Overt scares are uncommon in the film. It values restraint over utilizing monsters, ghosts, or whatnot to jump out at the audience. While there is nothing wrong with the latter approach, such is a scare tactic designed to generate an evanescent response. It is simply not right for this material. Instead, Aster’s story is more concerned with strengthening its thesis when it comes to the subject of one’s a genetic predisposition to mental illness.
I think the film functions, for the most part, as a metaphor for not knowing with certainty what the future might entail for someone who has a family history of mental illness, specifically schizophrenia. And so, it works better as a horror film that wrestles with private feelings, longings, and fears than as a horror film that attempts to appeal to mass audiences. Thus, the ending is a severe miscalculation. While not quite a horror film for the ages, I admired its intentions and most of its decisions.