(2018—Director: Ari Aster)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
“Our sacrifice will pale next to the rewards.” — Note from late mother Ellen Leigh to daughter Annie Graham (Toni Collette)
Potential spoilers below
In 2011, writer-director Ari Aster emerged with a short film entitled “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons”. The disturbing and twisted short flew under most radars until the first half of last year, when a slew of reactions to it became quite the YouTube trend. It would not surprise me if the short’s impact gave independent studios and independent distributor A24 the confidence to support Aster in producing his feature debut. With its patient cinematography and editing, its unnerving soundtrack, and Toni Collette providing the bulk of the acting effort, writer-director Ari Aster’s Hereditary makes for a commendable first impression, albeit one that is not without its narrative shortcomings.
The Graham family dons black attire: Mother and miniaturist artist Annie (Toni Collette), her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and their high school-aged son Peter (Alex Wolff) and timid daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro, donning a Wonder–like makeup job) bury Ellen Leigh, Annie’s elderly mother. In her eulogy, Annie expresses surprise at the larger-than-expected turnout. Ellen Leigh not only had a strained relationship with Annie, but Ellen had a secret social life, at least until she spent her last years bedridden in the secluded Graham household. The late Ellen did, however, obsess privately over spiritualism and fostered a close relationship with Charlie, who does not seem to mind having a non-existent social life herself.
As it turns out, there is much the Graham family never knew about Grandma.
Some have compared writer-director Ari Aster’s feature debut to 1973’s The Exorcist. Looking at the technical crafts, this makes sense: Editors Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnston handle Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography with great care. When a bird violently bounces off of Charlie Graham’s classroom window, one only needs Charlie’s calm and undisturbed gaze, followed by a cut to her teacher’s desk where a pair of scissors sit in a jar, to know what comes next. Pogorzelski, Lame, and Johnston’s efforts, along with the sound team and Colin Stetson’s score, imbue Hereditary with a refreshing patience as well as an unsettling atmosphere.
However, I would argue that Hereditary’s setup compares better with 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby. (To elaborate on how would spoil both movies, although I will say that Ann Dowd is Hereditary’s Ruth Gordon.) In that respect, I would say that Ari Aster has made a strong feature, but not a masterful one. Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist remain horror staples, not only for the anxiety they generate in their respective audiences, but especially in their methodical plotting and how they allocate information to viewers. The Exorcist in particular integrates its story with its sublime technical crafts (pointed out in several ways in this article).
True, Hereditary shows today’s filmmakers that a solid horror film can exist without heavy editing, bland cinematography, overwrought acting, and—worst of all—obnoxious and predictable jump scares. Yet by emphasizing its technical proficiency, Hereditary ends up leaning on its shock moments instead of the thematic meat and strong logical payoffs that thrived in recent genre relatives The Babadook, It Follows, The Witch, and Get Out. This affects the cast’s performances. Toni Collette has attracted positive attention for her turn as Annie Graham, yet Ari Aster’s script often has her stretching to make sense of her family’s predicament for the audience as the movie progresses, making her performance feel too much like a performance. Collette works hard to enliven the non-scary scenes, resulting in comparatively underwhelming and passive appearances by Alex Wolff (playing an average high schooler with a decent silent gaze) and especially Gabriel Byrne (in a husband/father role that is as thankless as most supporting female horror roles on the big screen).
Hereditary is far from being as weak and insufferable as Insidious: The Last Key when it comes to cinematic horror in 2018 so far. Instead, Hereditary stands mostly within the shadows of A Quiet Place’s compelling innovation and Annihilation’s pockets of electrifying trauma. Hereditary displays both technical excellence and room for polishing and nurturing in the narrative department. Ari Aster has set his path and I do hope that he follows it, fine-tuning along the way where necessary to go beyond and surpass his eye-catching first efforts.
(Parental Note: Hereditary has been rated R by the MPAA “for horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use, and brief graphic nudity”. It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for “strong threat, gory images, language,” and “drug misuse”, and rated L (Limited adult audience) by the Catholic News Service for containing “black magic and Satanist themes, gruesome events and images, drug use, glimpses of full male and female nudity in a nonsexual context, a few profanities, and numerous rough and crude terms.”)
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.