Ari Aster | 127 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English | 15 / R
Unless I’m forgetting something, I think Hereditary was the most-discussed, most must-see horror movie of 2018, so if, like me, you’re only watching it now, you’re late to the party. Still, as with most horror films, the less you know the better for its effectiveness (not to mention there are so significant unexpected developments in the story, which even the marketing managed to hide for a change), so I’ll keep this review spoiler-free.
The film centres around a family living in a remote-looking part of Utah: mother Annie (Toni Collette), her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), her 16-year-old son Peter (Alex Wolff), and 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). After Annie’s sometimes-estranged mother dies, various family members begin to see and experience odd things, and… well, like I said, the less you know the better. Hereditary is the kind of horror movie that relies on the mood it builds up to unnerve you, so if you have too much of a head-start on the plot it’s like crippling the film’s ability to suck you in.
I do think it’s perhaps important to understand what kind of movie this is, though, because many of the negative reactions I’ve read seem to stem from misaligned expectations. Hereditary plays almost more like a family drama than a horror movie for a good while, albeit one with some scary moments and a general air of unease; of something about to go very wrong. You’ve likely heard how good Collette is in the film, how many people wanted her to get an Oscar nom, and this is really why. The storyline gives her a plausible character in a state of extreme emotional strain, and she plays this conflicted, broken woman with just the right balance of subtlety and explosive emotion. Credit, too, to the rest of the lead cast, who are more understated, but in a way that brings necessary balance. They may be less showy, but their contribution is vital. First-time writer-director Ari Aster has been hailed as a great new voice in horror filmmaking, but I’d wager if he went on to do straight dramas we’d be just as fortunate.
As things go on, naturally the background creepiness increasingly edges into the foreground. There are even jump scares that got me, and I can’t remember the last time a horror movie managed to get me with a jump scare — and one of them was purely auditory. This movie made me begin to hate my surround sound system. If you watch without one, you are losing some of the impact, frankly. But even worse than the jumps are the things you see coming, or gradually come to notice are there; the stuff you see but then have to wait for what’s going to happen. There are situations and images here that will haunt your memories after viewing. It’s this overall unsettling atmosphere that will keep you on the edge of your seat for much of the runtime; more like, say, The Shining than a blood-and-guts fairground ghost ride.
If there’s one place it missteps, it’s perhaps the final act. Some people have accused it of a tonal shift here, or even of being “goofy”. I agree that it spirals quite quickly from “family drama with a bit of the supernatural” to bringing everything to a head, and many of the most outright “horror” bits are in this final act, but it still kept me uncomfortably on edge. (I know I said I’d keep this spoiler free, but, fair warning, I’m going to allude to the ending now. Jump to the final paragraph to avoid all that.) The only time that tension dissipated was in the very last scene, which I don’t think was the intention — it’s not meant to come as a relief, but by finally answering some questions and putting some things out in the light, it kind of lets you come to terms with them. It’s also a little, for want of a better word, daft; or, as that other person said, goofy. Most of Hereditary is truly unsettling, even when it’s not being outright scary, so it’s kind of a shame it didn’t have a final moment that maintained that unease.
I say it “answers some questions”, but it’s not an exposition-fest that explains everything that’s been going on. That may well lead you to start interrogating the plot afterwards to fill in some of the gaps, and I’m not sure it all hangs together. I’m all for films that leave audiences to use their imagination and intelligent thought to fill in holes themselves (and by “holes” I don’t mean “plot holes”, just things the film hasn’t explicitly explained), but when you start trying to plug gaps and find it doesn’t add up, maybe the film should’ve explained something more. Or maybe it’s a movie about the unknowable and so, of course, we can’t know it all. An individual’s own taste will vary on how much this matters: some people won’t spend any time turning the story over after the film ends, in which case it’s conclusive enough as it is; others can write it off as, as I said, the unknowableness of the supernatural; others still might find the apparent gaps undermine the whole experience. I sit somewhere between the latter two stools, because I don’t think you notice the gaps until you begin to think back over the logic of what must’ve occurred, and I don’t think the lingering questions retrospectively undermine the potency of the movie-watching experience, but it is a shame it doesn’t seem to all add up.
It’s these questions that were going to hold me back from giving Hereditary full marks, but I’m not sure that’s fair. Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination. Even then Hereditary’s destination isn’t bad, it’s just not perfect. And the journey to get there… As a horror movie, it’s one of the most genuinely unsettling I’ve seen for some time, with imagery that makes my hair stand on end just remembering it. It’s all the more effective for the way it grounds itself in real-life tragedy, with a powerhouse performance from Collette that, yes, if it were in a straightforward indie drama would surely be a frontrunner this awards season.
Hereditary is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK from today.
It placed 13th on my list of The 15 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.