Director: Ari Aster
Cast: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro
April saw the release of what was slated to be the best horror film of the year, A Quiet Place. It stormed the box office, was critically and commercially successful and is still enjoying a decent run in cinemas. But now, just two months later, Ari Aster’s feature film debut is fast becoming a rising threat to John Krasinski’s smash hit, receiving positive review after positive review yet dividing audiences. Not your average horror, Hereditary delves into psychological realms in ways that only film can, so those heading to see the film expecting a straightforward screamfest will be surprised, whether for good or bad. Going by this, is Hereditary a worthy contender for this year’s horror crown, or is it really even comparable to the likes of A Quiet Place and therefore deserving of its own individual accolade?
The anguish-heavy story picks up after the death of Annie’s (Collette) mother. Annie herself is mother to two teenage children, Charlie and Alex. Along with her husband Steve (Byrne), they attend the funeral where Annie reveals her tense relationship with her mysterious mother in her eulogy. Annie worries about Charlie, concerned that she’s not progressing well socially: Charlie spends a lot of time alone, observing and drawing. When Peter is invited to a party, Annie insists Charlie accompany him. Although the film touches on little bits of psychological instability and introduces some standard horror tropes before this, it’s really from this point that things start to take a serious turn, causing Annie to dive into a perceived madness that scares her family, helped along by Joan (Ann Dowd), a woman Annie meets at a grief support group who may not be all she seems to be.
Ari Aster hasn’t got the largest filmography behind him. All his noted works (at least according to IMDb) are short films, three of which are easily available to watch online* (be warned: they aren’t all for the faint of heart and some could cause some offence). It would be beneficial to see these before watching Hereditary, as they provide a background for Aster and an understanding of where his mind was at when writing this film. His themes more often than not centre on family, but not in a way the Waltons would be proud of. He explores the intricacies of familial relationships, sometimes to very uncomfortable extremes, sometimes to the inevitable detriment of the family dynamic. There are aspects to Hereditary that many people will recognise as things they have been through, and may even be able to relate to the strange and metaphorical ways Aster gets his themes across. No matter how you view Aster’s shorts, if you were to watch them, his explorations are very forthcoming and incite debate, as film should, and his very dark satire and humour can be just as outrageous. As long as you can understand, or at least realise, the context and reasoning behind what Aster is doing, Hereditary may make a little more sense to you by the end, as it does grow to become something seemingly nonsensical.
Aster’s ability to create tension in this story is, frankly, second to none. When a particular incident occurs we, as an audience, know what the reactions of certain characters will be as it’s generally a tension-creating cliché. But instead of purely streamlining the sequence of events from mutiple points of view (incident to discovery to reaction) Aster builds it from one genuine, understated view, taking something highly predictable and breathing new life into it by using a mixture of sound and visual techniques (the cinematogprahy and editing is very refreshing throughout) as well as utilising the extraordinary talents of his actors. This then helps to build the terror that comes later in the film (and you will likely be terrified at times). The same goes for the emotion Aster creates – it’s all very heightened, at times coming across as overdramatic, but then he balances it out wonderfully by, again, hiring just the right actors to convey the differences in his characters. If there is one downside to the story, however, it’s that it isn’t the most original. Aspects of it are very reminiscent of the wider universe of Paranormal Activity, particularly the third movie in the franchise. Hereditary’s plot has its own variations and, as mentioned, Aster has his own techniques that give it a unique feel, but ultimately it’s not entirely something we haven’t seen before. The meaning behind it may be different, but the execution isn’t completely original.
Toni Collette is an absolute knockout. Her performance as Annie, a character whose mental stability drops dramatically throughout the film, is what drives most of the plot. It’s predominantly through her that we experience particular emotions (fear, sorrow, stress, to name a few). Collette’s performance can, at times, come across as over-exaggerated, but it would be wrong to call that a negative. Opposite Collette is Gabriel Byrne as Steve, a loving but realistic man, who is the calm to Annie’s storm. Whether it’s his genteel disposition, his soft Irish accent or his mere presence, Byrne is the reason Collette can go to extremes with Annie. Aster had to get his casting right, lest these characters sway too much to one side or the other and become unbalanced, and luckily he nailed it. The same goes for the casting of his young actors, Milly Shapiro as the unhinged and strange Charlie and Alex Wolff as pothead Peter. Shapiro’s performance makes it clear from the off that something is not right with Charlie, and the importance of this becomes clear. Charlie has a strained relationship with her mother, and Shapiro does the job of playing a youngster with some inner, unnatural turmoil to great effect. Wolff is another standout, with his ability to emote through silence and utter stillness a huge factor in the success of this film’s tension. It’s a world away from his last feature film performance as a comedic teen in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. He has a chance here to show off his abilities as an actor, and it’ll be exciting to see where his career goes from here.
There are a lot of similarities between Hereditary and A Quiet Place – the tension-building, the suspense, the fear-factor, a family at the centre of it all – but the truth is they are very different films. Hereditary is massively allegorical – it doesn’t necessarily need fictional monsters of the sort that A Quiet Place has to get its point across. Yes, there is a supernatural arc in Hereditary, but it’s used to express the insanity of the mind when it’s been through something it struggles to comprehend on a human level. A Quiet Place’s use of something unnatural is on a more obvious level, making it more the standard “horror film”. Hereditary has been placed in the horror category, which is fair and is clearly the genre Aster has chosen in which to explore his themes, but the horror aspect is merely a by-product of addressing the emotional and often physical consequences of trauma and grief through supernatural metaphors.
The trailer for the movie seemed to express it as an out-and-out horror, but it’s so much more than that, verging on an artsy, indie movie (as is reminiscent of Aster’s short films). The ending will likely leave many moviegoers wondering what the hell happened, but if you go in knowing what Aster is about, you will likely understand it a little better. That’s not to say you won’t still enjoy the film, if being frightened is your thing, because you will, there’s no doubt about that. There just may be a lot more to be frightened about than you may think. Aster has created a new way to be fearful in a movie, and the most terrifying part is that it’s not entirely fictional.