James Cole Clay// Film Critic
First time filmmaker Ari Aster’s HEREDITARY is so nasty and dark that you’ll be shocked at how much empathy this story generates, even if the results are further down than you’d ever expect to dive. Aster, who has made several shorts that gave him notoriety this decade, is yet another filmmaker in a long list of recent newbies who’s created a show-stopping debut seemingly out of thin air.
What Aster made is a sorrowful story about familial turmoil that turns vindictive in a hurry, without unlocking the keys to the puzzle until it’s absolutely necessary. He taps into the horror and resentment that accompanies grief with a fear that we may have all had at one point: “Am I turning into my parents?” He sets a mood that’s filled with a semblance of love for the (un)suspecting family, but something isn’t quite right. Fans of Stanley Kubrick and early period M. Night Shyamalan will eat this up, but those looking for your regular smash-and-grab horror need not apply. HEREDITARY tells a story that keeps the darkness alive with one beautiful scene after another.
We start immediately following the death of the Graham family matriarch, Ellen — a secretive woman with an unknown past and even more mysterious social circles. Her daughter Annie (another terrific turn by Toni Collette) has been estranged from her mother for years, and while, sadly, there’s some relief her mother is gone, a dark cloud hangs over her. She has a psychiatrist husband Steve (an understated Gabriel Byrne), a teenage son Peter (a moody Alex Wolff) and her 13-year-old daughter, Charlie (Tony award-winning Milly Shapiro), who may be on the spectrum.
Aster has one despicable event happening after another where little character quirks and innocuous memories become major plot-points. It’s a juggling act of themes that become increasingly more disturbing. Be mindful there are images in HEREDITARY that cannot go unseen, but humanity is discovered in the awful truths that unravel. The concept of family is complicated in Aster’s world; it’s a place filled with the burden as he covers each frame with an unpredictability that can’t be rivaled.
At times Aster’s work becomes a spooky haunted house story with jump scares and creepy kid vibes that feel familiar and may find some less patient viewers checking their watch, yet the execution keeps the pistons of dread pumping. But none of this would be possible without Collette, who has delivered THE acting performance of 2018, thus far. She runs the gamete of emotions from bitter, to heartbroken and even optimistic. Annie is a difficult person to wrangle just by watching her, so Collette embodying such a complex woman is no small feat.
Byrne’s take on the loyal, yet skeptical hubby provides a warmness that compliments the brashness of Collette quite well. This goes for the kids as well. Wolff portrays Peter with a detached trauma that could be mistaken for typical teenage angst, while Shapiro’s acting operates in a world only occupied by her.
HEREDITARY acts as a cautionary tale and points out one of the most obvious horrors of reality: we truly can’t pick our family. Just be warned that there’s a point in this film where you will contemplate getting up and leaving the theater. However, this is typically a sign the horror movie is working in spades. HEREDITARY will test those not willing to give themselves over to Aster’s twisted form of grief counseling, but it’s an exceptional experience no less.
HEREDITARY opens nationwide June 8.