Hereditary (2018, Ari Aster)

For better or worse, once the film proper starts, Hereditary doesn’t have a single wasted moment. Every little thing is important in the end, whether it’s how dead grandma wanted favorite grandchild Milly Shapiro to be a boy or Toni Collette’s justified fears of hereditary schizophrenia. I mean, the title’s Hereditary and she’s got a first act monologue about her brother suffering when he was in high school. And, wait, isn’t Collette’s son, played by Alex Wolff, about the right age for a similar ailment?

Maybe it’s Hereditary.

There are three big plot “twists” in the film, but writer and director Aster wants everyone on the lookout for more. Colin Stetson’s music sets them up, scene after scene. When the film’s building through the first and second acts, it seems like it’s heading somewhere unexpected. By the third act, it’s clear the film’s heading exactly where it said it was heading and why would anyone get distracted by the red herrings, especially since they usually involve dad Gabriel Byrne being suspicious and Byrne’s a red herring himself.

But the red herrings aren’t wasted moments. They’re in the film to confuse both the characters and the audience. It seems to work on the characters, though they have help from Aster intentionally casting doubt on them, but once Hereditary is on the horror movie rails it gets on, it never deviates. The third act’s rote, duplicating story beats from other films in the same sub-genre. It also upends the regular cast, meaning Hereditary doesn’t give Collette a great role. She gives a great performance, but it’s not a great role.

The film opens with its only superfluous moment—an obituary for dead grandma, introducing the characters by name and some general ground situation stuff. Collette’s eulogy covers the same material, so it’s just for mood, only then not. It’s just there to be ominous, not figure into a late-second-act character thread, like everything else in the film. It also stands out because it’s not visual, and director Aster is all about the visuals. Collette’s an acclaimed miniaturist who makes scenes from her tragic, terrifying life as dioramas for wealthy New Yorkers. The film shot in Utah, but there’s no specific location mentioned (if there’s a Mormon subtext besides them being secret Satanists, it’s too subtle).

Anyway.

Aster does a great job transitioning between the doll house rooms and the actual rooms of the house, maintaining the same narrative distance and style throughout. Hereditary’s a great-looking film, with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski and Aster always gently implying the uncanny. While Stetson’s music hammers in the uncanny. Besides the music (and maybe Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnstown’s cuts), the film’s pieces are all subtle. Brought together, they’re anvils.

So while Collette’s trying to reconnect with daughter Shapiro, she’s also got this weird relationship with Wolff, which gets explained somewhere in the second act, but by then, it’s a little too late. The film obscures the ground situation for later impact; it ought to be able to cover for it, thanks to the quality of the filmmaking and then Collette and Wolff being terrific, but then they’re stuck with Byrne.

Byrne’s fine. It’s the part. He’s got no chemistry with any of the family members. Aster writes him as detached and obtuse, but he’s actually doting. It’s a weird fail. Fixing Byrne’s part might fix the movie. It also might not.

Shapiro’s good. It’s a slightly less thankless part than Byrne’s, but only slightly. Ditto Ann Dowd as Collette’s new friend from grief anonymous.

Hereditary looks and sounds great, with seventy percent of a phenomenal Collette showcase, but it is very much what it is and not an iota more.

Leave a Reply