When the matriarch of the Graham family passes away, her daughter’s family begins to unravel cryptic and increasingly terrifying secrets about their ancestry.
Like similarly fantastic and crowd-displeasing horror films of the past few years, The Witch and It Comes At Night, Hereditary is a film that largely deals in atmosphere and emotional horror. The Shining, which happens to be my favorite horror film, is a clear touchstone and I would go as far as saying that this is the first modern horror film I’ve seen that genuinely captures a similar tone and ethos. Much like that film, it delivers its horror through an intensifying sense of unease and dread that becomes nearly suffocating by its conclusion.
Rather than startling you with cheap scares, it offers haunting and upsetting images which are often delivered without any of those overused sonic jolts. Perhaps most importantly, it anchors everything in an emotional core with nuanced characters who experience relatable family struggles and grief. And that is absolutely critical to what makes the movie effective and resonant: it works on a metaphorical level, using the supernatural story as a vehicle to explore the very real way in which a family can be absolutely ravaged by tragedy, and furthermore how trauma and mental illness are passed through the generations.
Visually, Hereditary is nothing short of stunning. The house set is wonderful, spacious and expansive, and the way the camera drifts and pans across and through it, alluding to the miniature aspect of Collette’s character, is perfect. There are some nice, telling close-ups that draw focus to the character’s emotion, often manipulating the viewer’s expectation on what they’re going to see in the coming moment. It carefully moves, leading you to something terrifying, only showing it when emotion is drawn out to its highest level. Scenes are often framed widely, allowing the overbearing shadows of the house to draw in the eye, too much reward as several scenes feature secrets and figures hiding about. The editing is also fantastic, with a few memorable overlay fades, but also my personal favorite, the sharp, clean quick cuts. The tightness and timing of the cuts is hair thin, splicing night and day like a light switch. It’s only enhanced further by some wonderful sound design, triggering cuts and scares with little to no buildup. There are a lot of wonderful ambient sounds as well.
Toni Collette stars as the mother of the family at the heart of the film, and frankly the bulk of this movie. Her emotional range, her mannerisms and the way she captures the essence of a woman having a mental breakdown are astounding. There are too many powerful scenes under her belt to even single one out. She is captivating, disturbing, and devastating throughout and though genre films are so rarely favored by major awards, a lack of nomination for her this year would be a slap in the face. Ann Dowd stole many of her scenes, Alex Wolff carries much of the third act and acts it out brilliantly (even though some may find it comical), Gabriel Byrne has the least screen time of the entire family but does a wonderful job with a powerful scene that I really liked, and whoever Millie Shapiro is I expect her next project to be this entertaining.
Despite the fact that I was very much invested and riveted throughout the length of the film, there were some detectable pacing issues. I feel conflicted in saying that because I’m very much a fan of the slow-burn horror style which benefits from a deliberate pace, but I did get the occasional nagging sense that things could’ve been tightened up just a tad without losing the effect. But in the end I wouldn’t even call it pacing issues, perhaps just hiccups of a director who’s going to go on to make even better films. Unfortunately this was also one of the worst theater experiences I’ve ever had. As seen in the trailer, the character Charlie often clicks her tongue, so of course near the entire damn audience felt the need to click their tongues at random times, mainly during the dramatic scenes. It was all teenagers doing this, by the way. There was a 10-year-old in the audience, and he didn’t make a peep. If there are any parents reading this, take the little ones to see this movie, and leave the young adults home (I’m kidding of course….kind of).
Hereditary is a landmark horror film and one of the most lacerating family dramas ever made. Really crisp editing. The lens work was some of the best I’ve seen all year, the team was slinging great shot after great shot. Lighting and glass work executed near perfection. Every performance was top-tier. It’s fantastic! Sprint to the theater and bring your little kid, not your teenage son/daughter (I’m still kidding… kind of). *cluck*