Greeted in some quarters as the second coming of the horror genre, Hereditary is a largely taut, occasionally glib chiller. Its insistence on suspense over and above shock is a refreshing, classical tactic that pays off well.
After the death of her aged mother, Toni Collette’s Annie is struggling to hold her family together. Her career as a miniaturist is becoming entwined with her lived experience, slowly alienating her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne). Her son, Alex Wolff as Peter, is an increasingly isolated high schooler; meanwhile her young daughter, Charlie (Millie Shapiro), is visibly failing to process her grief.
Charlie’s odd, silent, clucking malevolence is Hereditary‘s entry-level vehicle into its genre; she is initially and deceptively foregrounded as the ‘scary girl’ so ubiquitous in other horror pictures. Indeed, this film’s early scenes can feel oddly clunky and hackneyed. Expository dialogue is delivered without naturality, and Checkovian hints are dropped wantonly.
Yet, reflecting on these moments after the credits roll, it’s clear that first-time director and writer Ari Aster is misdirecting viewers ever so deliberately. This is a genre film, no mistake, but it coyly uses tropic hints to throw up mental red herrings. This contributes to an early and persistent mood of suspicion and suspense, a laudable success that has been calculatedly won.
The film’s cast, of course, are equal parties in this. Toni Collette’s fraught, fragile Annie is wonderfully realised, veering from pitiable to monstrous in moments. Her anxieties and paranoias are just about understandable, making them all the more unsettling. Her children, meanwhile, are each entirely memorable. Milly Shapiro is utterly unnerving as Charlie, guileless and weird, but, hugely importantly, relatable in certain quiet moments (for example, at a crowded party of older kids).
Gabriel Byrne is more pedestrian as the resident skeptic, Annie’s husband, but perhaps the film’s best performance comes from Alex Wolff. His twitching, sweaty pallor only gets greyer as Hereditary escalates, and certain twists and turns seem to trip numbing switches in his head. His terror, as it grows toward the point of no return, is a tremendous cipher for viewers’ own anxiety.
Then, in its final moments, after a crescendo of paranormal ongoings, Hereditary takes the odd choice of explicating itself. Questions raised about the occult and just what is actually happening are clarified, and potentially malignant influences are rubber-stamped. This is certainly a bold move, and feels undeniably fresh; however, it also oddly undermines the mood of the film.
When suspected unknowns become known knowns, feelings of vulnerability are undeniably undermined. As much as it demonstrates gumption and a certain finishing flair, the loss of uncertainty, and the diminishment of ambiguity, is a curious price to pay. Hereditary‘s impressive and well-wrought stature is not damaged in any profound way by this final directorial twist, but fewer explanations might have been welcome.