Full disclosure — when it comes to horror, you’ll typically find me hiding behind my hands, but nothing has shaken me more than Ari Aster’s Hereditary. At just over two hours, it’s an unrelenting, dread-inducing portrait of a family descending into grief.
After their grandmother passes away, the Graham family learns they’ve inherited a dark fate, one from which there seems to be no escape. Annie (Toni Collette) is an artist, creating miniature replica houses and scenes from her everyday life. It’s here where Aster, in his directorial and feature-length script debut, frames his story. The line between the miniature version of the house and the real one tend to get muddled, creating shots of the real house to look like we’re looking in on a doll house, just with real people. It’s a metaphor that’s successfully carried through the entire film, and only part of the reason Aster is a master at horror filmmaking. The characters here are smart, subverting normal horror movie tropes, sometimes with a wink to the audience. As the film goes on, and the events take a turn for the absurd, the characters ground the story. These are real people, and their grief tangible.
Collette is a frightening wonder. She begins as a grieving daughter, struggling with the idea that she hated and loved her mother. Collette embodies grief in a way that’s nuanced and familiar. As the dread plummets and Annie turns more erratic, Collette delivers a convincing transformation into someone so consumed by the tragedies in one’s life that all she can do is hang onto the past. Gabriel Byrne plays Annie’s husband, Steve, in an understated, but memorable performance of a man at a complete loss. Though he doesn’t have as much to do here, Byrne brings a quiet sense of grief to rival Collette’s anger. Alex Wolff’s Peter, son to Steve and Annie, who could arguably be considered the main character, also shines throughout. Where Collette’s descent into madness is loud, Peter’s takes on the stoic, shellshocked demeanor which is equally effective. Young Broadway actress Milly Shapiro gives a chilling turn as Annie’s daughter, Charlie, a thirteen year old obsessed with death.
Aster knows how to draw things out, and when to let them end. Shots linger on the most disturbing images — Collette’s facial expressions on moments of shock, fear, and grief last long enough that it almost seems like her face is distorted — as well as on the most emotional scenes. Sometimes, it’s quiet. Otherwise, the score by Colin Stetson is loud, foreboding, and will have your heart pounding loud enough to become part of the percussion.
The films pacing is what keeps the dread mounting, prolonging your horror and makes the wait for the lights to turn on feel agonizingly long.
What Hereditary is most successful at, though, is capturing the constricting way death is inevitable, be it family members or your own. No matter how much control you think you have over your life, death is there to tell you you’re wrong. The Graham family is trapped in their own nightmare, but the slightly comforting, or conversely, the tragic thing about it is it’s not their fault. It runs in the family.
This review was originally published at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.