Hereditary revolves around one simple premise: You might not really know your family at all. The people who’ve raised you may all have insidious secrets writhing around in remote corners of their lives – and those secrets can be shaping your life in ways you can barely perceive.
Written and directed by Ari Aster, the movie begins with Annie Leigh (Toni Collette), an artist who makes extremely detailed miniature dioramas, coping with the death of her estranged mother. The sedate rituals of grief give way to re-establishing everyday rhythms with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and two kids; youngest child Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is a withdrawn little girl with off-putting behaviours, while Peter (Alex Wolff) is a slightly apathetic teenager preoccupied with weed and girls. Bothered by her emotional response to her mum’s death, Annie secretly starts going to a grief counseling group and meets Joan (Ann Dowd), a woman who’s working to come to grips with death in her own family. When Joan offers Annie an unorthodox way to respond to her loss, the latter woman’s life starts to unravel.
Collette makes Annie feel like a totally relatable middle-aged mum, one struggling to manage a maladjusted tween and an id-driven teenager. Annie comes across as a person who’s used to routine and she wonders about how much grief she should be feeling after such a major loss. Later, her performance becomes electric, infusing Anne with grief, dread, and mania all anchored in earned sympathy. Wolff matches her acting with frightening intensity, sinking into a role that sees Peter turn into a raw nerve that twitches, sulks, and screams at all the chaos he’s living through.
While Hereditary does wash itself in the blood of the occult, part of the movie’s horror comes with its use of small, quotidian decisions. It’s got a few jump scares but those won’t be what stays with you after the credits roll. It’s the notion that eating the wrong thing, talking to the wrong person, and withholding important information all lead to tragedy in this movie. You’ll likely be reminded that you and people you care about probably do some of these same things everyday, and wonder at what terrible consequences might happen as a result.
This is Aster’s first full-length feature and he orchestrates the movie with a sure, confident hand. Take how he uses the miniatures to provide a destabilizing element to the proceedings; sometimes the camera will zoom into a shot and you’re not sure if you’re looking at a real room or its tiny replicant. Then a hand will place a figure into the frame and then you know. That mechanic also underlines the movie’s thematic narrative, as it becomes clear that grandma’s actions were designed to put her family in a specific… configuration.
Hereditary is a long, slow burn of a movie, but by the time its final climaxes hit, you’ll be shellshocked and paranoid, dreading and anticipating whatever comes next from its director.
Hereditary was shown last week at SXSW 2018 and will be in theatres June 7.