For Ari Aster's Hereditary, the hype was peak out of Sundance Film Festival. Critics dubbed it the scariest film in years, with many comparing it to The Exorcist. Does it live to its reputation? As a movie, yes, but as a story, it isn't as strong. Aster cleverly uses the stages of grief as a guide to forward the plot, but the intended impact falls short. Women hold the story together as Toni Collette at her most brilliant and most unhinged. It's just frustrating when a movie full of potential fumbles in it's second and third act, leaving you unfulfilled and with more questions than answers.
When Ellen Graham, the matriarch of the Graham family dies, her estranged daughter Annie (Toni Collette) throws herself into her work. The mother of two is a diorama artist who creates scenes of her daily life, some serene, some gruesome. Her nuclear family consists of Peter (Alex Wolff)-- her eldest child is a teenaged stoner with raging hormones; Charlie (Milly Shapiro), the creepiest child on screen since Damien in the Omen; and Steve (Gabriel Byrne), the loving husband and father whose just trying to hold shit together. All are mourning in their own way, but Charlie is most affected. To cope, Annie attends group grief management meetings where she meets Joan (Ann Dowd), a grieving mother looking for solace in the company of others. Unbeknown to Annie, this is a match made in hell.
As family tragedy strikes again, Annie is vulnerable, and Joan sees an opportunity to forward her agenda, and the family descent into madness begins. One by one they start to unravel as the sins of the mother come crashing down on Annie, and it is her responsibility to make things right.
Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski deserve high praise for their technical and visual execution. The audience gets a bird's eye view--a diorama in motion--into the life of the Graham family. The use of darkness and shadows plays tricks on the mind and implants a haunting sense of dread. The soundtrack intensifies that anxious feeling with deep hollow sounds and eerie music that sets the tone for the sinister forces at work.
Another fascinating aspect is the way Aster cleverly implements the stages of grief into pivotal scenes. Denial and anger are first as the Graham family can't have dinner anymore because it turns into a screaming match. Bargaining and depression happen as Annie finds ways to address and cope with her losses by attending grief meetings and bonding with Joan, and at this stage, our heroine is susceptible to evil influences. Finally, when Annie begins to accept her fate, she believes she is the one that can free her family from this inherited curse.
The best asset to the film is the captivating performance by actress Toni Collete. She delivers one of the best portrayals of the year in a genre often ignored by award committees. Here's to hoping award snobs can put aside their hate for the horror genre to acknowledge superb acting next year.
With so much to celebrate, Hereditary isn't perfect. From the trailers, many compared the film Jennifer Kent's The Babadook anticipating it would examine the profound effects of mental illness on motherhood, and how that impacts a nuclear family. However, the film is more an homage to Rosemary's Baby with necromancy as a central plot device, and in this case, that feels like a cop-out. It's much more frightening to think of this as a look into the life of a dysfunctional family than it is the work of the devil. There is a problem with the use of these specific themes because Aster's script doesn't shift smoothly between them. This left a disconnect between each act, making it feel like several different films are happening at once.
Hereditary is a hallmark in cinematic film making, and still worth a watch, but the narrative prevents it from living up to its full potential and leaves viewers scratching their heads wondering what they just saw.