Movie Review: Hereditary

A slow and brooding horror film breaks away from the door-slamming cliches

Hereditary (Děsivé dědictví)
Directed by Ari Aster
With Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Byrne

An ominous mood builds slowly throughout Hereditary, boosted enormously by a deeply disturbing performance from Toni Collette.

The film avoids the current horror film cliches of suddenly slamming doors and screeching music anytime something odd appears on screen. It plays more like a standard melodrama that veers off into the supernatural.

Nothing seems quite right at any time in the film, and nobody behaves normally. The start is a funeral, where Collette's character, Annie, gives a bizarre eulogy condemning her deceased mother and her strange ritualistic ways. The scene is packed with clues for the rest of the film.

But Annie is no less strange than her mother. She is an artist who makes large doll houses and panoramas, filled with people caught up in daily tasks. Hospital rooms with her dying mother, traumatic domestic scenes and even the funeral all get immortalized, with Annie working obsessively over the details. Close-ups up these frozen moments add another unsettling dimension to the film.

Inheriting the strangeness is Annie's daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), who spends all her time making dark sketches and doing peculiar solitary things.

Her brother, Peter (Alex Wolff), is the relatively normal one, trying to lead an average teen life and have friends.

Rounding out the family, which lives in an isolated house at the edge of a forest, is Steve (Gabriel Byrne) as Annie's husband and the father of Peter and Charlie.

Nobody in the family ever seems to have a normal conversation, and that seems to have been going on for a long time before the funeral.

The feeling is something in between Ordinary People and The Shining, both of which have domestic tragedies lurking in the background. Rosemary's Baby, with all of its cast acting oddly, is another film that Hereditary evokes.

While the death of Annie's mother does seem to unleash some supernatural events, at the same time Annie plunges headlong into a downward spiral. It is hard to separate what is supernatural and what is mental illness.

Collette is a massively underrated actress, often put into support roles. She gives one of her best performances since her Oscar-nominated turn in The Sixth Sense, another horror film. She also gave a star turn in the unfortunately overlooked film the Night Listener, with Robin Williams. There she played a blind woman with a son that nobody has ever seen, but everyone believes exists.

Her character's quiet obsessiveness in Hereditary always seems just one step away from boiling over, and often even not that much. When she does talk, floods of emotion burst out all at once. Even when she becomes completely frantic, she never goes so far over the top that she breaks out her character.

The rest of the family, also dealing with loss and tragedy, tries to be patient but clearly things are going off the rails.

Young actress Milly Shapiro makes her screen debut in Hereditary and is another key part to the film's success. It is not her first acting role. She starred in the Broadway cast of the award wining musical play Matilda. She captures a sense odd eccentricity and social awkwardness.

Alex Wolff has been in a number of films including Patriots Day and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. He does an adequate job but is easily outshined by Collette and Shapiro.

Gabriel Byrne's role is much more of a background one, and he has little chance to do much.

The cinematography adds another unsettling dimension. The camera work is slow and deliberate, creating a sense of dread. The perspective, often a bit distant, shows some of the spaces from the same angles that are used when looking into the dollhouses. At times, it is not clear at first if a scene is in the actual house or a dollhouse.

The ultimate explanations are perhaps a bit underwhelming compared to what came before, and much of it can be guessed of one is paying attention.

But after a series of disappointing horror films on local screens such as The Snowman, Blumhouse's Truth or Dare, Insidious: The Last Key, and The Bye Bye Man, finally Hereditary offers some dark atmosphere and creeping terror.

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