The family at the heart of “Hereditary” is the Graham family, consisting of mother Annie (Toni Collette), father Steve (Gabriel Byrne), older brother Peter (Alex Wolff) and younger sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro). The family is in the process of grieving the recent death of Annie’s mother, an emotional process that’s proving to be highly complicated for Annie due to the strained relationship she had with her frequently cruel mother. An already trying time is made worse by the erratic behavior of her two kids, particularly Charlie. I’m not gonna ruin any more plot details beyond that, but from this starting point, “Hereditary” creates a captivating story about how exactly Annie copes with the kind of emotionally harrowing death she’s dealt with too many times before.
While I won’t divulge spoilers here, I will reveal that “Hereditary” is very much its own creature in fascinating ways. Most notably, director Ari Aster has a phenomenally-realized style of filming that emphasizes extensive long takes with the camera frequently placed a good deal of distance away from the characters. This recurring technique is subtly implemented, but its impact on the production is felt without question and it’s far from the only part of the camerawork in “Hereditary” that shows impeccable craftsmanship. There are all kinds of creepy pieces of imagery in here that are as meticulously put together as the small figurine models that Annie crafts for her job and it’s far from the only place this movie generates memorable moments of scariness.
Some horror films get their scares from blood n’ guts, others get it from the mere sight of gruesome monsters, but “Hereditary” gets the majority of its scares from simply following recognizably awful scenarios that plague this poor family, the kind of situations we all know can happen but pray to God every day they don’t transpire. So much of the horror in “Hereditary” stems from everyday horrifying circumstances as well as the responses the characters have to said circumstances. There are all kinds of great examples of just how scary it is to watch characters express their responses to plausible gruesome calamities, but one example, in particular, haunts me just thinking about it.
The scene in question depicts a distraught Annie on her knees on the floor bellowing out “I WANT TO DIE!” repeatedly, a verbal manifestation of her internal response to an endless succession of turmoil. It may sound simple conceptually, but it’s a horrifying moment to watch because of just how recognizable it is. We’ve all been in this state of mind in a time of immeasurable grief, that tremendous sorrow we all try to hide away from the world but writer/director Ari Aster frequently depicts as a key element of his horror feature. To boot, tapping into this manner of responding to a cataclysm doesn’t feel exploitative in “Hereditary” simply because the individual characters are so well-rounded. A character like Annie Graham isn’t just here to provide overt demonstrations of overwhelming grief for the viewer to gawk at, such demonstrations are at the service of larger-scale character arcs.
Annie Graham herself is portrayed by Toni Collette, no stranger to horror movies in her career between “The Sixth Sense” and “Krampus.” Collette does work here quite unlike anything else I’ve seen her do in the rest of her filmography as she brings to life such a challenging character. There are all sorts of layers to this character, as exemplified in an early scene where Annie Graham publicly details the complicated relationship she had with her late mother, and Collette handles such an intricately rendered character beautifully to the point that one can organically feel both terrified for and terrified of Annie Graham. Alex Wolff does similarly exemplary work as Peter, a character who has to grapple with a large amount of dark storylines and personal demons that Wolff handles nicely, he helps makes Peter’s internal struggles immensely captivating to watch.
Wolff and Collette are excellent on their own, but it’s especially commendable just how well they work together, there’s a number of crucial scenes here hinging on the two’s interactions (especially a pivotal dinnertime argument sequence that had me glued to the screen) and this duo of actors perform exceptionally together, creating a fractured mother/son dynamic that feels very much tapped into reality. Channeling realism here and in the majority of “Hereditary” results in lots of thoughtful thematic material for this story and these characters to cover, but most importantly of all, it results in some of its most terrifying moments that, to quote the George Jones song “The Grand Tour,” “…I know will chill you to the bone.”
Douglas Laman is a film critic, who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College, hangs out with friends and… watches movies. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website at www.landofthenerds.blogspot.com