Director: Ari Aster
Writer: Ari Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff
Genre: Horror / Drama
After her mother passes away, Annie (Collette) and her family start to unravel some terrifying secrets about their ancestry, and the more they discover, the more they struggle to outrun the sinister fate they all seem to have inherited.
I must confess that I am growing increasingly fed up of the extreme surplus of films being labelled as ‘horror films’, as they more often than not are just really lazy films that rely on having quiet scenes followed by loud parts or just have over the top gore, so I just tend to avoid them for the sake of my own sanity. Of course, the genre does occasionally produce some very interesting films that try to do something a bit different, A Quiet Place being a recent example. Well, despite its trailer perhaps suggesting it favours the more generic genre conventions, Hereditary is actually a film that purposefully builds at a very measured pace and creates a real atmosphere through not being afraid to take its time. In fact, considering this is the director’s debut and the cynicism of the film industry, it is quite surprising he was allowed to make a film that is over two hours long and takes quite such a long time to build its atmosphere.
For a feature debut, Hereditary is very self-assured in its writing and direction, and it is very refreshing to see that an auteur is allowed to make the film that he wants to, as the bare bones of its actual narrative may not quite have the substance to match the film’s deeply effective style, especially as the slightly overly explained revelations in the film’s final third reveal a narrative that relies on heavily on contrivance and coincidences that makes for a film that as an overall experience lacks an ending that truly justifies its very impressive build-up.
Hereditary does actually contain a type of story that has been done countless times before, but in this day and age is done in a 90-minute film that is made with the lowest common denominator in mind and uses cheap cinematic techniques to get to its conclusion, and is so completely forgettable. Horror is of course a very expansive word, that when used in the context of the language of cinema can mean many things and many styles, and indeed in this genre it is not necessarily about the film’s central story, but how it depicts it, and this is where Hereditary trumps so many of its genre contemporaries. It is a masterful exercise in cinematic mood and tension, with Aster effectively using many of the of unique tools that are on offer when making a film.
Of course, in any genre the same story can be told in many different ways by films, but this is surely most prevalent in the horror genre, and where so many go for cheap jumps or gratuitous gore, Hereditary skilfully avoids such lazy narrative devices to build tension very slowly, with a focus on developing its characters and slowly revealing its narrative secrets. From the very start of the film we know that this is a slightly messed up family, but the narrative skilfully keeps many cards close to its chest, and so we are not quite sure if they are just severely emotionally and damaged and suffering from a mental illness as a result, or there is something else at play here. Aster often playing on the notion that home should be the place where someone feels safest and most secure, but the family home feels very much like a character in the film, and not one that can be trusted to offer security to its characters!
For a very long time, Aster reveals very little, and this allows the atmosphere, questions and sense of tensions to slowly build. Hereditary is very much a very cinematic treat for all the senses, with Aster using long takes with slowly panning camerawork to build the atmosphere, Pawel Pogorzelski’s crisp cinematography making even the simplest setting have an underlying feeling of menace and dread, and there is no superlative that can quite describe just how effective Colin Stetson’s score is at helping to create the film’s mood and atmosphere. In fact, if it were to feature a far more generic score, then Hereditary would be nowhere near as good as it is.
The performances are also excellent; Toni Collette gives a fiercely committed performance and her decisions (some quite questionable) are what often drive the narrative, so the fact that her performance helps us to empathise with her character’s situation is very important to our overall engagement with the narrative. Gabriel Byrne is the only main character not to be a blood relative of the deceased, and he delivers a suitably subtle performance of stoicism and scepticism towards the narrative events. Meanwhile Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro are excellent as the two troubled children, and Ann Dowd gives a very effective performance as the narratively important character of Joan.
As it builds to its conclusion, Hereditary may not quite deliver the true sucker punch or satisfaction that its skilfully measured and executed build up potentially promises, but there is no denying that it contains some moments that will stay in the mind of the viewer for some time.
An assured debut that is deeply refreshing in its execution of what is fundamentally a slightly generic plot; Hereditary is a deeply haunting and engrossing exercise in genuine cinematic atmosphere and tension that will linger long in the memory.