Hereditary (Movie Review)

Hereditary (Movie Review)
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PLOT: After the death of her mother, Annie (Toni Collette) unearths the fetid rot found at the root of her family tree.

REVIEW: HEREDITARY is the scariest movie I’ve reviewed in nine years writing for Arrow in the Head. Indeed, Ari Aster’s dreadfully atmospheric feature debut, which, having been critically equated with a new generational EXORCIST, entered theaters over the weekend with most insuperable of expectations. And yet, somehow, Aster’s blistering bow does not disappoint. In opinion, certain instances, namely Aster’s brazenly bravura steersmanship and Toni Collette’s towering tour-de-force, actually transcend all preconceived notions going in. To be crystalline upfront, this is not a movie for the casual horror fan. This is not a movie for the constitutionally weak. This is not even a movie you see to have fun. This is a movie for the calloused, cynical, desensitized horror fan who may feel they’ve seen everything under the sun and above the full moon and need a little more. This is for the horror junky looking for a new vein to spike. But here’s the catch. HEREDITARY does not play as a cheap, dumb, exploitative horror B-movie. On the contrary, the movie ascends to even greater mortification than that kind ever could because it’s played as an absorbing drama first and foremost, at least early on, until its central characters dictate an organically sewn horror-story. I can’t overemphasize the importance of this differentiation. HEREDITARY doesn’t cater to convention or pander to expectation, its inherent horror sprouts from the relentlessly petrifying depiction of the most topical of buzzwords these days: mental health!

Annie Graham (Collette) just lost her estranged, highly pious mother Ellen to dementia. Admittedly not too shaken up, Annie turns to her family: staid husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), bong-ripping teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and creepy daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), for consolation. Charlie, redolent of the harrowing DON'T LOOK NOW homunculus, wearing oversized clothing and makes eerie clicking sounds with her mouth, seems to be most bereaved by her grandmother’s death. She was closest to Ellen, who wielded the most influence of the little girl, much to the chagrin of Annie. But when Annie starts going through her mom’s dusty belongings, she begins excavating certain clues that reveal the true nature of Ellen’s private life. And not just her own, but her family’s sordid history of psychosis and horrifically tragic death as well. Annie starts unraveling a bit. She even begins to see her mom appear in the darkness at night. So does Charlie, who has visions of her dead grandmother beckoning her to certain destinations. All the while, Aster’s hand at the rudder keeps us clenched with an infectiously festering pace, and an osmotic menace that seeps right into the core of your pores and simmers, bubbles, stews, and eventually boils into a volcanic eruption of nerve-burning unease.

Another unspeakable tragedy befalls the Grahams. I won’t betray this one, but this further compounds a sense of unconscionable grief, ungraspable guilt and deep-rooted family resentments. These emotions, housed in the head mind you, give way to a third act which explodes into the realm of the supernatural, without being unbelievable. In fact, because the script is so tightly woven (even at 127 minutes), because the actors are so thoroughly committed and ceaselessly credible, because this is an A-list production from top to bottom, the story not only feels real, its terror strikes with emotionally upending, nerve-pulverizing candor. HEREDITARY does not feel like the work of a first-time filmmaker. Aster has honed a more than confident craftsmanship over the course of a half dozen preceding short films, and seems to preternaturally understand the gravity of properly establishing tone. And even more impressive here is knowing that, if the tone itself is one of gravity, with little levity to puncture the tenor, than it damn well better be executed as airtight as possible. It better grip you tight, squeeze you close and never let go. Aster affirmatively achieves this, clutching us with a well attuned sound-design, an indefatigably bruising story and knotted-up plot-line that you will neither foresee, nor impugn for being poorly planted in the early going. Even greater, each detour along the way is a germane and genuinely unnerving one.

That is the bottom line, the bone-clattering fright that is summoned no less than five or six times throughout the film. Even against the iron-clad guard of the loftiest of expectations, or the callused constitution of seeing 1,000 horror movies, the venom still penetrates. And vitiates. Again, I cannot in good faith say much more in the way of specifics, so instead I want to redirect the attention on Toni Collette, an underrated actor who’s done terrific work for nearly 30 years now. She is the undeniable heart(break) and soul(crush) of HEREDITARY, lending a bravado performance on par with the great Piper Laurie in CARRIE, or Mia Farrow in ROSEMARY'S BABY. It’s that commanding. The way she peels back the layers of Annie’s emotionally distressed psyche is a searing sight to behold. She never indicates, she never lets on too much or obfuscates too little, she plays every virtuosic note on the scale here, ranging the full gamut from sadness, rage, guilt and regret, to madness, mania and miasmic malevolence. And she does so with never a false moment. Along with Aster’s deft directorial flourishes, Toni Collette’s turn is at the center of HEREDITARY’s terror.

Also at the heart of HEREDITARY’S horror, ironically, is the head. And not just the characters’, but your own. Perhaps the key to encoding the films vicious, vertiginous conclusion – which Aster has diabolically tossed in the air for subjective interpretation – could lie in your own personal beliefs relating to heaven and hell. Depending on which way you hew, the connotation of the movie’s title may alter. If you believe, the ending could be taken literally. If not, it’s merely a figment of a diseased mind. The way I personally read the film, the single greatest demon facing the Graham family resides only in the corroded confines of their sickened heads. Whether this illness is inherent through blood – as insisted - or foisted upon as children by Ellen – also inferred - does not make a difference. The demon remains the same. It comes from the same place. It’s in this allegorical ambiguity that movie not only separates itself from gormless, gratuitous horror bilge flooding the marketplace, now and onward, it’s likely what will withstand the greatest scrutiny over time. The debate over mental health writ large may even be distilled down to the devilish distinction presented in HEREDITARY, but as long as the topic remains as taboo or incendiary as religious belief, that debate may never be had. Point being, HEREDITARY not only has a profoundly upsetting affect, it actually has something to say while doing it.

I could belabor the overarching point ad nauseam, but for every second you’re here reading is a second taken away from seeing the movie for yourself…which, if you can’t tell, comes wholeheartedly recommended. Look, HEREDITARY not only belongs squarely in the company of other prestige A24 horror pictures like THE WITCH (not IT FOLLOWS) or IFC’s THE BABADOOK, movies that sincerely deserve unanimous praise as modern horror classics, it’s the most exquisitely disquieting movie I’ve been fortunate enough to review in almost a decade. It nears perfection.

Extra Tidbit: HEREDITARY opens wide Friday, June 8th.
Source: AITH



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