Family Trauma is the Scariest Fright in A24’s Latest Midnight Masterpiece

Hereditary
Rated: R
Runtime: 2 hours 7 minutes
Director: Ari Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Gabriel Byrne, and Milly Shapiro


Equal parts The Exorcist (1973), Manchester by the Sea (2016), and Kill List (2011), Hereditary is the latest horror offering from acclaimed, independent studio A24. After wowing critics and disillusioning general audiences with It Comes at Night (2017) and The Witch (2015), A24 has returned to theaters with a new psychological thriller/horror film that more-or-less enjoys (suffers?) the same fate as its two predecessors despite also being substantially more mainstream than them.

Hereditary is about a repressed family whose collective fate descends into a nightmarish reality after the passing of the family matriarch: Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother. Annie, her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and her two children Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and Peter (Alex Wolff) all begin to unravel as they are forced to cope with the consequences of the deceased grandmother’s secretive past. What more can be said about this film without undercutting its first-viewing impact? Well, without delving into specifics, I would add that this movie is ultimately about agency; or better yet, the tragedy of its absence.

alex-wolff-peter-hereditary
Despite what the trailers would make it seem, Peter (Alex Wolff) is integral to Hereditary

It goes without saying that, like all A24 selections, this film is impeccably shot, scored, and edited; however, where it surpasses The Witch and It Comes at Night is in the performances. Toni Collette’s performance as Annie is easily the centerpiece of the film. There’s a handful of extended scenes with Collette that are hypnotically authentic, but it’s her dinner table monologue about halfway through of the second act that almost singlehandedly puts her in the Oscar conversation. Similarly with Casey Affleck’s incredible performance in Manchester by the Sea (2016) and the Best Actor Oscar that year, I left Hereditary convinced that Collette will take home Best Actress for this film come the next Oscars. She isn’t the only one flexing their acting chops here; her in-film son Peter (Wolff) does a phenomenal job portraying the subtle nuances of a carefree, introverted teenager suddenly thrust into deeply traumatic situations. In fact, Hereditary‘s promotional material positions Peter’s sister Charlie (Shapiro) as the parallel protagonist with Annie, and while that rings true, it’s actually Peter who’s the emotional conduit for the audience.

Director Ari Aster brilliantly utilizes Wolff’s reflective performance to convey the film’s real horror: fear of family. This is where I find a prime similarity between Manchester by the Sea (my favorite film of 2016) and Hereditary. Both films share a particular resonant intensity centered around blame, grief, and mourning. Like ManchesterHereditary isn’t afraid to go to some very dark places; places that most people have probably been through in some way, shape, or form in their own families. In fact, while there are undeniable horror tropes in it (primarily in the final 15-20 minutes of the film), the majority of the film is just this family dealing with loss and trying to cope with the fallout of that loss, which the film accomplishes with an aptly patient and introspective temperament, or to put it bluntly, a slow thematic pace, albeit with bursts of insanity throughout.

I’m starting to see a trend in movie-going culture with films like mother! (2017), Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), Annihilation (2018), somewhat with Avengers: Infinity War (2018), and now with Hereditary, that point towards a universal rejection of creative subversion. Each of these films, while all enjoying their fair share of passionate fans (some more than others), have been heavily scrutinized by their detractors predominately on the basis or off a measure of how much they subvert some arbitrary preconceived expectation. mother! does not follow a conventional storytelling structure, which for a significant amount of people makes enjoying that film impossible. The Last Jedi is so vehemently hated by a very vocal faction of Star Wars fandom because the film holds no loyalties to traditional Star Wars tropes. Annihilation subverted its own marketing and as a consequence misled general audiences into seeing a film with a lot more difficult content than initially let on, so they dismissed it. After 17 MCU films that more or less stuck to a familiar formula with the heroes coming out on top at the end, Infinity War rubbed a lot general audience the wrong way with its untypically dark content and bleak ending – my family hates the film for that reason. To the average moviegoer, Hereditary is just another out-of-touch and mismarketed indie film disguised as a crowd-pleaser, which is apparent by the film’s D+ Cinemascore rating. However as a fan of A24’s previous horror outings, I have to say that Hereditary has lot more to offer the casual movie-goer than an It Comes at Night.

Keeping in mind how harsh audiences have been towards Hereditary, I feel that I should qualify my 10/10 score. If slow burn indie horror has been your thing or you’re open to new genre experiences, you will find that Hereditary successfully has its cake and eats it too. But if you’re uninitiated to this brand of dramatic horror and are looking for a Conjuring clone, which is perfectly fair, then this one probably isn’t for you.

10/10

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