It’s fair to say that in recent years horror films have improved greatly. Even modestly ambitious movies like Lights Out and Don’t Breathe manage to deliver the goods, if not the resonance.
Hereditary is the other kind.
There’s a lot that can’t be said about Hereditary, lest one spoil the the brew. Suffice it to say, Hereditary is more than a cut above. It’s a step beyond.
The basics are thus and so. A woman’s mother dies after an extended illness. No one in the family is particularly close to the deceased except her daughter, Charlie. A child that may not be on the autism spectrum, but she’s on something.
In many ways the 13-year-old daughter is the strangest character depicted in the film. Actor Milly Shapiro has one of the most amazing faces I’ve ever seen. She seems to simultaneously look like a child and an old woman. It’s creepy as hell and that’s before she starts doing weird things like cutting off the heads of birds to put on the ends of craft projects.
But I digress. A nearly unspeakable tragedy transpires, and the mother (Toni Collette) goes from bad to weird. It’s a real tour de force from Collette. An actor whose greatness has long escaped the mainstream. Looking over the width and depth of her career, it should take no more than a cursory glance to recognize that she is one of our finest actors. I would go so far to argue that Hereditary may well be her finest hour.
After this horrible event which I will not get specific about, we find Collette coming untethered. Her husband (Gabriel Byrne) tries to hold the family together, but Collette’s treatment of their son (Alex Wolf), and her increasingly unstable behavior creates an impossible situation.
As Collette begins to believe she can commune with the dead, Byrne finds himself on the brink as well.
The movie takes a long time to commit to the supernatural. There are long stretches when you can’t be sure how much is in her head and what is real. It is deeply unnerving. And when the truth comes, it arrives with no quarter for the family unit or the audience either.
As horror, it should be said that Hereditary checks all the appropriate boxes. The premise is disturbing, the dread is palpable, and it is legitimately scary as hell.
Director Ari Aster uses a score that is often dissonant noise, creating an unnerving effect. At other times he employs silence, which is even more disturbing. Many of the takes go on past the point of comfort and well into excruciating. His direction is confident enough to believe that the rope must be stretched tightly, but also at a pace that feels like a terribly slow unwinding. There are scenes in this movie that are almost unbearable.
All of that would be well and good. That alone would make Hereditary a superior genre film. However, it is so much more than that.
Aster has created a film that would be nearly as troubling were there no horror elements at all. This may sound crazy, but in many ways, Hereditary is more like Robert Redford’s Ordinary People than any other film within its genre.
At its core, it is about the fragility of the family unit. The toll a history of mental illness can take on a family once an excessive amount of grief and stress are applied in equal measure.
There is a scene at the dinner table where Collette lets her son have it over his actions related to the fateful night when death by accident strips the family of more than they can bear, that is so powerful and profoundly unhinged, I could hardly stand to sit through it.
The writing, craft, and courage on display in that scene and several others separates it from even the best of horror movies. It is simply a great film, period.
Movies like this often get passed over during awards season. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that. The ghettoization of the genre often exiles such films to the outside looking in.
I hope that’s not the case here. At minimum, Aster’s screenplay and Collette’s performance should be recognized. And not necessarily in that order. While Aster has written a terrific script, Hereditary is far and away a showcase for Toni Collette.
Collette is a bit like Tom Petty. You may not place her on your list of favorites, but when you take in the full measure of accomplishment, you find, like Tom Petty has written many a great song, Collette has delivered a remarkable number of terrific performances. She’s never mentioned among the best actors working, but that says more about those expressing the opinion than the facts on the ground.
In Hereditary, Collette is monumental. She is asked to play to the extremes in the film. This is no surprise. We are talking about a horror film. Collette digs deeper, and Aster gives her plenty of room to let her display the entirety of her arsenal.
And my what a sight it is to behold.
There are a lot of ways to showcase a character’s unraveling. Aster’s patience creates a despairing and slightly off – in a good way – narrative for Collette to play out.
Three scenes struck me in particular.
The first is when Collette learns, in perhaps the most horrible way possible, of an awful loss. She lets out a howl like I haven’t seen anything close to since at least Angelina Jolie’s in A Mighty Heart, who upon learning of the death of her husband, scorched her vocal chords and makes you forget you are watching a movie. This is on par, if not above it.
Second, the dinner sequence where she and her son take each other to task. Collette pushes past all vanity and desire for character sympathy to supply one of the most brutal and reprehensible take downs of a child ever.
And then lastly, once again with her son, Collette reveals that she never wanted him and that she tried to kill him in her womb. The masterful way she realizes she’s said too much, tries to clean it up, and get past it is at odds with the initial invective aimed at her son. She seems to truly be thinking on her feet. Alive in the moment. Not playing. Not acting.
These three moments are alarmingly effective. They lift the movie to a new plateau, driven by Collette’s fearlessness.
This is not to say the performance of the other actors don’t add to the Collette soufflé. It’s a real treat to see Byrne in a film that matters for once. His underplaying allows Collette to stretch out. In many ways, he anchors the film. For he is us. The rational man who sees the circumstances of his wife’s breakdown much as we might.
Much can be said of Alex Wolf as well. There is a scene when under duress, Wolf goes from asking for his mom, to asking for his mommy. It is top-shelf heartbreaking.
In the end though, this is the Toni Collette show. One that might seem brazen, if not outlandish, in the hands of another actor. She finds so many grace notes amidst the rawness of the material. There are times when she’s funny, charming, or just being a tough mom. You can imagine yourself liking her very much. Which makes all the more difficult that which follows.
What Aster and Collette have done here is an accomplishment on the level of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. It transcends convention. It does so by giving you that which you think you want, but also so much more.
Hereditary is many things. Terrifying may well be nothing more than the most obvious. It is not only great at horror, it is also one of the best films on the subject of mental illness I have ever seen. Revealing the way through both biology and environment, one can break loose of their moorings and become a danger to all around them. Including themselves.
And it has Toni Collette. Who after a long career of doing exemplary work, turns in the performance of her life. She must be seen to be believed.