Hereditary is an example of a horror film that absolutely works for me. There is substance in the story, multiple levels of interpretation, and some genuinely horrifying moments that stay with you long after the credits roll. What makes this film all the more impressive is that it is the feature film directorial debut for Ari Aster – who also wrote the screenplay. Aster showcases his understanding of visual storytelling time and time again throughout the film. Hereditary left me thinking two main things: I need to watch this again to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and there is almost no way I can watch this again.
Hereditary is haunting and stays with you long after the film concludes
After the passing of her mother, Annie Graham (Toni Collette) has to deal with a lot of issues previously kept locked away. She and her mother hadn’t always gotten along, which makes the emotions of losing her all the more complex. As time passes, Annie begins to reveal secrets of her family’s past that become increasingly more disturbing.
Not every movie makes me take notice of the camera work, sound design, setting, and lighting…but this one does. It’s not that what the film does is always obvious or in your face – though there are a few shots that definitely want you to notice them – but rather the subtlety that Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski are able to deliver in abundance through shadows and repetition. A major element to Annie’s character is that she is a miniature artist. There are moments in the film that show the house that the family lives in that makes it look like one of her miniatures. This idea is established early on, as most of the miniatures she makes or has made are moments from her life, and thus reflect images we see of it. The moments where the real world instead reflects the look of the miniatures adds to the often unsettling aspects of the film. It’s an effective technique that could be set design mixed with cinematography, or a trick of the mind created by juxtaposing the miniatures with the actual sets early on, making us question what we are looking at.
Aster’s use of lighting in the film also allows for so much of the unsettling feeling that lingers throughout the film and permeates the auditorium that the screening was being held in. If you’ve ever walked into a room and – even if just for a second – you thought you saw something in the corner of the room where the light just doesn’t fall, then you know what it is to watch this film. There is always the sense of something present, but it’s never visible. This familiar fear of dark corners adds to the experience of the movie in many ways, and ultimately builds the terror as time ticks by.
Of course, none of it would matter if the performances weren’t strong. Collette dominates here, receiving some great support from Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro as her children, and a strong minimal role from Ann Dowd. The only weak performance I wasn’t fully into was Gabriel Byrne’s, which was a shock, as I have loved him in The Usual Suspects and Miller’s Crossing in the past. It’s not to say he gave a bad performance, but at times he didn’t feel like he was 100% into the role. There were moments when he did excel, however, and it certainly didn’t affect my enjoyment of the film as a whole. Each role manages to contribute in some major way to the narrative being constructed by Aster.
The hardest part about writing this review is not being able to discuss so many of the great parts for fear of spoiling the experience. Rather than singling out those individual moments or discussing the story any further than the synopsis at the beginning of this review, just know that it is compelling and contemplative. On the hour-long car ride home with my daughter – she is only 14, and handled this film far better than the critics sitting behind us who shrieked in terror and left as soon as the credits rolled – discussed many possible meanings of various elements of the film.
Ultimately, Hereditary is the type of horror film that clicked for me. I was shocked several times, for a variety of reasons. Throughout the film, I felt a sense of dread, and it sank in early on. This film opens with white text on a black background, which is of Annie’s mother’s obituary. It’s at this moment that a dark mood washes over the audience, and never fully lets up. Hereditary earns the Must See rating.