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HEREDITARY is the Dysfunctional Family from Literal Hell (Review)

Buzz is sometimes hard to overcome, especially if it’s uniformly positive. Everyone who goes to see it thereafter will compare it to the radiantly glowing reviews they’ve heard or read and it’d have to take a very special movie to make good on that promise. Coming out of Sundance this year, Ari Aster’s Hereditary had more positive buzz than a hive of optimistic bees, with some critics claiming it was “this generation’s The Exorcist.” With that in mind, I sat in the screening room at once dubious and ready to be wowed. Hereditary is one of the most unsettling movies I’ve ever seen, and I couldn’t sleep because of it.

Aster is able to build the tension throughout his movie with a sense of pervasive dread, a driving rhythm that starts from the first frame and doesn’t let up until well after you’ve gone to your car, and even after you get home. Hereditary takes its time to reveal its true machinations, and not everything works along the way. I thought more than once, “Oh, is this what they’re doing?” before the story moved in another direction entirely. It’s a long game; we’re watching a family slowly unravel because of the sins (incredibly numerous) both large and small, and at the center is the sense that nothing will be okay.

The film’s story concerns the Graham family, now led by Annie (Toni Collette) after the death of her mother. The pair had a very fraught relationship, especially surrounding Annie’s two children, elder son Peter (Alex Wolff) and younger daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). We learn following the funeral that opens the film that Annie’s mother was obsessed with Charlie, which as a result, nobody but Charlie seems all that upset she’s dead. Each of the three deals with the grief in their own way, with Annie trying out group therapy, Peter smoking even more pot, and Charlie continuing her creepy collection of homemade dolls. Holding everyone together is Annie’s husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), chiefly and importantly the only one not related to the mother by blood.

To say the presence of the mother looms large on the family, even after death, is an understatement, and creepy things begin to happen when Annie starts trying to commune with the other side, at the urging of a new friend from group (Ann Dowd). Because grief, and dealing with the death of a loved one, whether you particularly liked them or not, is a hard thing that manifests in different ways for everyone. Much of Hereditary‘s out-there parts work precisely because the family drama and dynamic–the tragedy of loss–works so impossibly well.

The entire cast is magnificent, but Collette is the center of the movie in more ways than one. Her performance is raw and pained and funny at times, but the fear of what’s happening also shows in every facial expression and movement of the eye. She’s astounding. Wolff has a lot of very hard things to do, not least of which is go toe-to-toe with Collette in mother-son shouting matches, and is really outstanding. Byrne has the thankless role of playing the “normal one,” but some of my favorite moments in the movie were from him, trying to rationally deal with members of his family mourning in their own, sometimes worrying and destructive ways.

But this doesn’t get to the heart of what’s so scary about Hereditary, it merely explains how it achieves its greatest moments. If we didn’t buy the family, we wouldn’t be scared for them and in turns by them as the horrible things start mounting. While we’re watching the family, we’re equally keeping our eyes on the corners of the frame, where at any moment something sinister–or downright gut-wrenching–could happen. Aster uses every inch of the screen, and every channel in the sound mix, to make the audience rigid with teeth-clenching anticipation, and when it really kicks off, it never lets up.

So, is the movie like The Exorcist? I wouldn’t say so. Aster is clearly inspired by movies in a similar vein, like Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, but also by classic and contemporary ghost stories like The Innocents and The Woman in Black. Hereditary might also be compared to other recent indie horror hits like The Babadook and The Witch, each having to do with parents and children, and how parents are at once the protector and downfall of their kids, and that “home” is not the safest place, even if you live in the middle of nowhere.

All the while, the “story” of the family is working, while the mechanics of the “plot” are alternately confusing, intentionally vague, or just silly. I’m still not entirely sure I grasp quite what happened in a lot of the movie, or why it happened, but I do know that a huge portion of the movie’s ghastly and disturbing images, and the overall implication of them, have stayed with me ever since, seared onto the back of my eyelids if it takes me too long to fall asleep at night.

4 out of 5 nightmarish burritos

Images: A24

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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