On the evidence of his first feature film, the unsettling don’t-try-this-at-home horrorfest Hereditary, writer/director Ari Aster has clearly studied the greats: Bergman (faith, betrayal, and insanity in equal measures), Scorsese (camera movement/in-camera trickery), Fessenden (bloody atmospherics), and the Coen Brothers (style with a capital S—a discombobulated pigeon smacking slap-dab into a classroom window, for example, mirrors Blood Simple’s newspaper delivery). Like many films by those masters, Hereditary is beautifully crafted. (OK, so Larry Fessenden’s not exactly in the same league as Ingmar, Marty, Joel, and Ethan but I thought of his creepy Wendigo more than once watching this.) And Aster’s film makes fascinating use of some sublime transitions, impactful imagery, and a solid cast hellbent on scaring the bejesus out of us, sometimes via the subtlest of touches (a nervous tic, for example, almost gave this veteran viewer a heart attack). The film’s strong supernatural undertones, which dabble in demonic possession, don’t fully manifest themselves until the confounding “King Paimon” denouement, thankfully, but by then the disturbing family dynamics have screwed their hooks in so deep that all but the most hardy won’t be looking directly at the screen anyway. The redoubtable Toni Collette plays the family matriarch Annie who, following the death of her overly-invested mother, struggles to band-aid her susceptible clan together. But she’s got her work cut out for her, as further unforeseen and horrific tragedies play out. Gabriel Byrne is nicely subdued as Annie’s husband Steve, and Alex Wolff (Peter) and Milly Shapiro (Charlie) play their besieged son and daughter—both youngsters are excellent in equally challenging roles. Hereditary is the full package though: a chilling and ominous score (by Colin Stetson), unnerving sound design, and some unexpected and outrageously-staged set pieces complement the on-point performances—this is a family we truly believe to be going through their very own private hell. The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane summed things up rather nicely: “[Hereditary] has the nerve to suggest that the social unit is, by definition, self-menacing, and that the home is no longer a sanctuary but a crumbling fortress, under siege from within.” Like Aster, I’m not averse to studying the greats either.
(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth