A film review by Craig J. Koban September 21, 2018

HEREDITARY jj
  

2018, R, 127 mins.

 

Toni Collette as Annie Graham  /  Gabriel Byrne as Steve Graham  /  Alex Wolff as Peter Graham  /  Milly Shapiro as Charlie Graham  /  Ann Dowd as Joan  /  Mallory Bechtel as Bridget  /  Brock McKinney as Aaron

Written and directed by Ari Aster

 

 

 

HEREDITARY is a new supernatural horror thriller that's a visceral masterpiece in terms of generating nail biting tension, haunting atmosphere, and a chillingly eerie vibe of intrigue throughout.  It contains moments of profoundly unsettling imagery that could aptly be described as Kubrickian.  Tonally and aesthetically, writer/director Ari Aster's feature film debut is astonishingly well crafted, and the manner that he maintains - throughout most of the film's running time - a bona fide nerve wracking tone is to his rookie filmmaking credit.  As far as first films, go, HEREDITARY for Aster is an unqualified technical success. 

But where the film unfortunately lost me, though, is in its basic storytelling (that wallows in multiple logic straining gaffes and inconsistencies...more on that in a bit) and in its deeply meandering momentum.  At over 120 minutes, HEREDITARY's slow burn approach (usually a welcome trait in these types of horror films) becomes more of a watch checking endurance test the longer the film progress, which all culminates in a seriously WTF?! third act that doesn't work anywhere near as well as the whole build up to it.  Ultimately, there's a undeniable level of superficiality that permeates HEREDITARY, seeing as it's a deeply disturbing film that genuinely gets under the collective skin of viewers, but beyond that and its commendable aesthetic merits - and one of the most dedicated and bravura performances by its lead actress of her career - there's not much left of meaningful substance.  I'm all for horror films - or films in general - that generate a sensation of nightmarish ambiguity by the time it all ends, but this one left far too many of its cards on the table, which hurt its overall effectiveness. 

 

 

The aforementioned brilliant performance comes from Toni Collette playing Annie Graham, whose mother (as revealed in the opening title cards, taking the form of a strange obituary) has just died, leaving the entire family grieving in their own unique way.  Annie's husband Steve (Gabriel Bryne) and her son Peter (Alex Wolfe) don't seem especially heartbroken over her mom's passing, but her young daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) seems to have been affected by it the most.  This 13-year-old kid in particular seems to have other issues going on beyond dealing with her grandmother's passing: She's completely antisocial, unhealthily introverted, and is prone to odd behavior swings, oftentimes taking the form of making weird clicking noises with her tongue that gets progressively creepier as the film progresses.  She also keeps a sketch book featuring some macabre illustrations that she's made in tribute to her grandmother, which is never really a good sign in a supernatural horror film. 

Matters spiral out of control for this family during one fateful night at a local party that Peter attends with Charlie in tow (he was forced to bring her at his mother's insistence), all which builds towards an unspeakably horrifying tragedy that I can't really speak in detail about at the risk of engaging in full on spoilers (let's just say it involves a food allergy to nuts and a car accident).  The increasingly grief stricken Annie begins to see her own mask of sanity slipping away when she's forced to deal with one unspeakable family hardship after another, but she achieves some solace when a local woman named Joan (Ann Dowd) befriends her and tries to help heal her emotional wounds.  As their relationship blossoms Joan is revealed to be into seances and is actually able to communicate to her own dead grandchild through them, one of which Annie witnesses herself.  Spiritually converted as a believer in speaking to the dead, Annie makes it her one woman mission to bring her family in and try their luck at the same ritual in order to speak to their own deceased relatives.  Of course, they all think she's a got a screw very, very loose and that her grasp on reality has loosened, but then strange things begin happening to everyone that go beyond explanation...and the plot, as they say, begins to thicken. 

HEREDITARY is cold and calculating in ways that few modern horror thrillers are in the manner that Aster slowly allows his story to develop an aura of spookiness without directly tipping off where the narrative will be going next.  There's a strong sense of discovery at play early on in the film, which invites audience members in and asks us to bare witness to the total mental implosion of Annie, who's forced to endure more in the first 30-40 minutes in this story than any mother should ever have to deal with.  HEREDITARY also does a wonderful job of tip-toeing between this character's sense of what's real and what's not...or perhaps what's paranormal and what's not...to the point where we begin to question her very sanity as a result.  Aster's film becomes a compelling two tier genre attack, which morphs back and forth between being a traditional horror thriller about the potential existence of life after death and a distressing portrait of Annie's mental shake-up.  Is she really able to communicate with the deceased or does she naively believe it because it serves as a form of an emotional coping mechanism?  For the most part, Aster keeps viewers off balance and guessing as we take this twisted journey alongside Annie. 

And Collette has never been better in any movie as she is here, in a performance that will have many thinking of her appearance in another famous horror thriller in THE SIXTH SENSE, albeit playing a wholly different kind of character.  One thing that Collette does with impeccable precision is capturing Annie's rawness as she has to confront trauma after trauma to the point of it being too physically and mentally taxing to endure.  It's also a tricky performance because she has to suggest both a fragile and troubled woman that may or may not be losing all connection to reality around her that has become obsessed with talking to the dead, much to her family's increased agitation.  It's a volcanic performance of ferocious power that adds a layer of dramatic credibility to a film that dabbles in the fantastical.  She's flanked and matched well by Wolfe as her son, who also has to fight his own internal war with himself when his doubts about the paranormal - and his growing distrust of his mother's mental health - are challenged in nightmarish ways.  All of these pour souls that populate HEREDITARY are losing control in one form or another. 

The character of Charlie, unfortunately enough, is a vague abstraction in the film that's frankly not developed as well as the other family members.  She's more of an odd enigma that needs to be decoded than she is a flesh and blood human being here, and even when she displays some truly tormenting phobias, fears, and habits that are relatable to a degree, she rarely feels like a real character occupying space with the rest of her family.  And speaking of realism, the script here doesn't help either when showing Byrne's dad and Wolfe's son reacting to the ever increasingly erratic behavior of Annie throughout, which doesn't ring rationally at all (how Bryne's husband puts up with her crazed and fanatical impulses without committing her to a hospital and a straight jacket strains credulity).  Even little details that could have proven potentially compelling (like Annie's job as a miniature model artist crafting small mini cities in her studio that tell their own stories) never really pays off in any meaningful fashion, outside of her re-creating a family tragedy in one of her pieces.  Perhaps the message here is that for as much exacting control that she has as an artist she lacks any beyond her work...but that seems muddled and hazy in overall execution. 

My biggest issue with HEREDITARY lays in the execution of the finale, during which time all of the tantalizing dramatic chess games that Aster plays by forcing viewers to ponder the mental stability of Annie and whether or not she's nuttier than a fruitcake are all but done away with as the narrative hurtles towards a conclusion that seems disappointingly inclined to shock to the point of coming off as unintentionally silly (plus, there's a logical inconsistency with a would-be shocking reveal in a family photo album that left me wondering how Annie never noticed it before).  That's a shame, because HEREDITARY began as a wonderful mind trip of a horror thriller that requires us to interpret just what in the hell is really happening to this family, but in the end it doesn't really matter because Aster abandons his story's initial uncertainties and unleashes a final act that lazily plays right into the supernatural horror troupe playbook.  I absolutely loved the build-up of HEREDITARY, which was uncomfortable to bare as a result of the rich audio-visual tapestry that Aster creates (the spine-chilling ambient sound design alone is Oscar caliber) and for Collette's tour de force performance, but it's all for naught in this overly long film that capsizes by the madness of its late breaking story payoffs.  

Two thirds of this film felt terrifyingly novel and fresh, but the other third felt slavish to obligatory horror conventions that we've seen done better in other films before, which, all in all, doesn't make HEREDITARY worthy of future and repeat viewings.

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