Written and directed by Ari Aster
The dull pound of grief and the chill of the occult combine in Ari Aster’s Hereditary, a film that hovers like an ominous cloud until it strikes with bolt-like force, tearing asunder a suburban family’s pristine life in a violent and inescapable way.
Annie (Toni Colette) is the matriarch, newly promoted to the role after the passing of her own mother, whom Annie describes as a secretive and knotted presence in her life. Her eulogy, delivered to a passive audience, betrays feelings of bereavement mixed with frustration.
One sympathizes. On one hand, she’s never been close to this person who kept her at arm’s length, but grief still grips tight. Blood ties work that way, but the child of resentment and longing is a bastard no one should want living under their roof, eating at their dinner table, sleeping in their bed. Annie soon shies away from it all, with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) looking on with devoted patience. What Annie soon learns is that her mother’s secrecy was for a reason. Whether that reason is good or not depends on who you ask.
Annie is an artist, and her artistry becomes an outlet for her grief, piecing together dollhouse-sized plateaus from her life: small, immaculately reproduced stagings that she begins to use as a coping mechanism by imposing through them an arrangable order to the unruly proceedings she’s witnessing (“It’s a neutral view of the accident!” she tells Steve at one point in reference to central calamity).
Aster won’t let her get off that easy, and much of Hereditary is Aster pulling the rug out from underneath anyone who thinks some things can be reasoned with, avoided or warded off.
Toni Collete’s central performance has the tropes down, with her already big eyes popping when the realities before her become too much to bear, but it’s her level-headed portrayal of a reeling mother, housewife and daughter that’s the bedrock on which Aster builds his story of curses, rituals, and blood-fueled mystique. A vast majority of people watching would do the same as her, if put in her damned shoes.
Her mundane mirror is Gabriel Byrne, older now and de-weaponized with his eyebrows a grey shadow of their former imposing selves, tries to establish some order with nurturing empathy; a quasi-reprisal of his role as a grieving father and husband in Louder than Bombs, he’s a soft but firm shoulder for Annie to lean into, but his rational understanding is impotent in the face of unfathomable grief and disbelief.
Horror films often draw their shock factor from bad things happening to good people, but they draw their power from how we connect and see ourselves in the victims. The home that Steve and Annie have built for their two children Peter and Charlie is immaculate, a life-sized version of the pieces Annie creates in the attic, and in his characters, Aster has struck a balance of the well-meaning, considerate family ideal that only really exists in the movies.
It might seem strange to read, but Hereditary isn’t all that scary, but it’s remarkable how many different ways Aster comes at you. Whether it’s forceful gore or icy persuasion, Aster’s sense for the unnerving is uncanny, and to watch Hereditary is to feel helpless as what starts as ominous breaks out into inescapable calamity.
When this calamity then descends on the dollhouse, our idealized domestic scene, and you must sit and watch the worst happen, well… there are worse things than jump-scares.