Sundance 2018 – Hereditary

I wasn’t originally planning on seeing this film, then I found out some of my friends worked on it so I told them I’d try to catch it. Then I found out A24 had picked it up for distribution, now I had to see it. I’m so glad I did. Hereditary follows the Graham family – mother Annie (Toni Collette), father Steve (Gabriel Byrne), son Peter (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) – as they confront an unspeakable family tragedy and a malevolent presence that manifests from the event. Ari Aster’s feature directorial debut is deeply emotional and absolutely terrifying, a slow burning familial nightmare. It is definitely one of the best films I’ll see at the festival.

About 30 minutes in, you’re starting to see a handful of tropes being set up, and you feel like you have a good idea of what is going to happen the rest of the movie. Then something happens that totally shocks you, and you realize you don’t actually have a clue as to what’s going to happen next. It’s a nice bit of clever bait and switch by Aster to set you up with traditional tropes, then throw them all out the window and watch as you grip your armrests in tension and uncertainty. I didn’t see what was coming at all, and I hope you go in as blind as I did because the less you know beforehand, the more terrifying this film is going to be.

Aster’s direction is reminiscent of early M. Night Shyamalan, and not just because his film stars Toni Collette. What Shyamalan does at his best is make films about broken relationships, and then surround them with something supernatural or “other” to physically confront his characters. Aster does this masterfully, making this film about a family confronting unspeakable tragedy and then peppering in malevolent outside forces to confront them, while also allowing little moments of authentically human humor creep in to make you care more about these characters. He understands that the horror doesn’t work unless you care about the characters in danger, so when the film does get totally bonkers, you’re hooked and terrified.

In a lot of horror movies, they present something you know the characters shouldn’t do – let’s say they are presented with a ouija board – you know they shouldn’t mess with it, but of course they do. A lot of times it’s because they’re stupid, and you lose interest in the film and its characters really quick and watch in almost boredom as they reap the horrors of their stupidity. What this film does, that not a lot of horror films succeed at, is that it presents the characters with something that we know they shouldn’t do, but you completely understand and empathize with them as to why they do it.

Aster knows how to clue the audience into the emotional dynamics between his characters visually, he and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski employ an inquisitive camera, deliberately moving yet free-flowing as it searches for its character’s emotional state and their surroundings. They light their framings extremely well, using skilled shadow lighting to hide terrifying images just beyond full comprehension. The lack of ability we have to fully understand what we’re looking at makes it that much more chilling. They inventively shoot each scene, you never feel like they’re just settling for coverage. They let many scenes unfold in long unbroken takes with multiple camera movements to highlight where these characters are at in relationship to each other. Aster doesn’t rely on exposition too much, he lets you get most of the information you need visually with gripping camera movements. He’ll employ quick cuts between night and day that amp up the tension. There aren’t many jump scares in this film, but when there are they are well earned. The audience lost it a few times, I certainly jumped and said “oh shit” under my breath more than once. For the most part, he lets you search the frame for the scary thing, and it makes the film all the more terrifying that he lets you discover the thing that does not belong in the image. He, like Shyamalan, makes the supernatural elements outright physical presences, not hiding them in cgi trickery, they are tactile and real. Simply put, Aster is the real deal, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

My only gripe, and it’s minute, is that they would have ended the film just a minute sooner. The final sequence plays out wordlessly, giving you everything you need to know in horrifying visuals, but then a character explains what’s happening even though you can see what’s happening. It’s just not necessary is all, it almost risks diluting the effect of the horror you’re witnessing.

Aster assembles a terrific cast and shows he can really direct his actors. Toni Collette is one of those actresses that never gives a lacking performance, yet still feels criminally underrated. Toni Collette is marvelous here, on a particular high note in a career with no low notes. She never feels like she’s overdoing it no matter how big and dramatic her scenes get, she just always feels authentic in her emotions. Her grief is just so real. If the Oscars would come just a bit more around to horror films, Collette is right there in this film ready for a nomination. She’s just that great here. Gabriel Byrne is also effective at portraying grief, and the frustration of trying to hold sanity together amidst a family crisis.

Alex Wolff is developing nicely. He can convincingly display terror, essential to making a horror film work, and he also communicates grief and guilt really well. There’s one scene where you watch him process something terrible that has just happened, and he’s just riveting in it. I had some stock in his older brother Nat, but then I watched Death Note and sold it all off for whatever I could get, which wasn’t much. I’m beginning to feel that Alex may be the true talent in his family, like Nick Jonas is to his. I may invest in Alex if he keeps it up. Milly Shapiro is a great find as Charlie, for reasons I can’t give away as they risk ruining the surprises of the film. She was at the Q&A after the film, and was remarkably intelligent and thoughtful for her age in her responses to questions, and worked the room with her sense of humor. She’s going to have a long career, and I look forward to seeing her in more films. I also love always watching Ann Dowd, and she’s terrific as ever in a supporting role here. The score by Colin Stetson is a remarkable addition to the film, it’s sense of paranoia and dread grow with the characters throughout the slow burn of the pacing. By the end, Stetson is reaching the same horrific heights as we are.

This was the film I was waiting to see at Sundance, the one that caught me by total surprise and didn’t let me go. This is the film I can’t wait to tell everybody about. This is the film I can’t wait for my friends and family to see. And let me just say as a Utahn, it gives me a great sense of pride to have such a great film made here in our state. Hail to the King.

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