While it may be too frightening for some viewers, Hereditary has cemented writer-director Ari Aster as a filmmaker to watch, and not just within the horror genre. Led by Toni Collette’s haunting portrayal of a grief-stricken matriarch, this outstanding ensemble piece follows a dysfunctional family on the brink as they spiral violently into a world of supernatural disaster.
I won’t reveal much of the plot details here because Hereditary is a film that is best when you go in blind, but I will talk a little bit about what makes this movie so good. Toni Collette is the film’s star of course, but supporting actors Alex Wolff (of Naked Brothers Band fame), Gabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects), and terrifying newcomer Milly Shapiro (*cluck*) are incredible as the Grahams, a nuclear family who feel like they might actually explode. Of the supporting cast, 20-year old Alex Wolff (who plays Peter) is the standout. In a story with multiple shifts in perspective, we are always drawn back to Peter. Though not featured nearly enough in the film’s marketing campaign and trailers, Wolff excellently flips the trope of horny horror-movie teen on its head, offering a much more complicated and nuanced character.
It is impossible to talk about Hereditary without talking about Toni Collette. Where do I even begin? Collette throws so much of herself into this performance that I have a hard time imagining she is okay in real life. Following the death of her mother at the beginning of the film, Collette’s Annie begins to fall into emotional ruin. As her life is falling apart, Annie is slowly rebuilding it in the form of elaborately constructed miniatures. Both beautiful and eerie, Annie’s miniatures demonstrate an artful concession to the inherent voyeurism of tragedy. Though Annie is not willing to let other people in, she is willing to show her tragedies to hundreds at an art gallery. In the moments of the film where the line between real life and miniature is blurred, audiences are forced to realize that they are the voyeurs of this tragedy, and that Aster’s characters have as much agency as dolls in a dollhouse.
Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is Ari Aster’s ability to use the horror genre to his advantage, rather than letting it control him. It is a film first and a horror film second, with Aster even describing the film as "a family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare." It begins with family, not with demons or monsters. Every scary moment in Hereditary is rooted in character and, much like Annie’s miniatures, every element of the film is meticulously crafted. Most directors try and mask their talent of manipulation, but Aster flaunts it. By showing you the gears and machinations behind the terror, he is twisting your fear in front of your face and smiling while he does it. He knows that his film is scary, but he also knows that that is not all it is. There is a certain substance to Aster’s work that forces you to care. As a frightened audience member, you first instinct is to disconnect. You want to step back and take a deep breath. But Ari Aster has no time for your breath. He has two hours and he is going to make you squirm for every minute of it. ★★★★★