I almost don't want to write this article. If you've read Evan's or Marisa's reviews, you know this is a film that is best taken in with as little preceding information as possible, and I couldn't agree more with that sentiment. If you read no further than this first paragraph, know that Hereditary is a harrowing, disturbing horror film that rather ingeniously leads you to believe it's about one thing before turning around and showing itself to be something even more terrifying than what it initially sold you. And, unfortunately, in order to actually discuss what makes this film so enthralling, I'm going to have to discuss some thematic and structural elements that aren't exactly explicit spoilers, but they do offer clues as to what is going on that many of you probably would prefer unspoiled. And considering that this is very likely going to be showing up on my top ten at the end of the year, believe me when I say you don't want this one spoiled.
Fair warning received? Cool, read at your own risk.
Hereditary opens on the death of the Graham family matriarch, leaving Annie (Toni Collette) to mourn with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), their teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and their thirteen-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Annie had a complicated relationship with her mother, tainted by years of mental illness and obligatory care-giving to a woman who imparted her fair share of trauma upon Annie and her children, making the grieving process something of a mixed bag of sorrow and relief for her. However, the grief only becomes further complicated as the specter of Annie's mother hovers over the Graham family, creating an environment that places the entire family at risk as unexplainable events overtake them. Again, to go too much further would be to divulge the film's greatest secrets, but the ensuing tale juggles themes of grief, regret, and guilt through the lens of a supernatural horror film that doesn't feel any less grounded in reality for its apparent departures from the corporeal.
What makes Hereditary so ascendant as a horror film, though, is the way in which it plays with your expectations of how a horror film should operate only to pull the rug out from under you in spectacular fashion. The frame is constantly littered with symbology and representational motifs that you feel compelled to connect together as the mystery of the Graham's haunting becomes further twisted and incomprehensible, almost to the point where you might start thinking the film is doing too much teasing, creating a convoluted mess of mythology and background detail that feels overcooked in what's ultimately a fairly straightforward haunting narrative. But then the realization of what's really going on starts to dawn on you, and the true brilliance of Hereditary's plot construction becomes apparent, creating a desire to revisit the film as soon as possible to see exactly what you might have missed.
It certainly helps that the performances are great across the board, with Milly Shapiro providing an unsettling turn as the one with the strongest emotional connection to her deceased grandmother, and Alex Wolff pulling off the nuanced performance of a kid who both loves and rightfully fears his immediate family. But everything you've heard about Toni Collette's magnetic performance at the center of the film is true, a swirling erratic amalgam of strong conflicting emotions, haunted and haunting in equal measure as the weight of loss contorts her into a force equally as terrifying as the ghostly apparitions lurking in the shadows.
I do feel obliged to place an asterisk on this review, as I'm not entirely certain how those who suffer from mental illness will respond to how it is presented here. Personally, I found the portrayals of how Annie's mother's illness affects the family as being appropriately sympathetic and remarkably nuanced in how the symptoms of psychological delusions manifest themselves, but that perception of accuracy may be borne of my own ignorance on the subject. I would be interested to see whether the affected community responds to this film with the same positivity as general audiences.
Even if we are dealing with a brand of generic dramatic madness, Hereditary has enough going on to make that a relatively minor issue. This is a horror film for the ages, a slowly unraveling puzzle of psychological torment that promises an amazing career from freshman feature writer-director Ari Aster. There isn't likely to be another horror film this year that carries this much weight, that leaves its audience with such a lingering sense of dread and contemplative introspection. The horrors it eventually reveals are much more gratifying than those it initially leads you to expect, and the scars it leaves you are going to last. What a film.