Hereditary (2018) ***

June 11th, 2018
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Ari Aster | Cast: Toni Collette, Gabriel Bryne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, 125′ US | Horror

Hereditary is in the upper echelons of atmospheric character-driven horror fare, but the film doesn’t end well for its characters – or the audience, for that matter. Superb in execution, characterisation and tropes, Ari Aster’s feature debut comes unstuck in a meandering narrative that simply doesn’t know where to go in the final act. And that’s the tragedy. Like an over-excited child at its first birthday party, Hereditary knows its been good and shared its new toys, and desperately wants the show to go on, but it’s also strung out and eventually driven to tears by exhaustion.

Favouring buttoned-up tension and tone-setting over blood and gore, this claustrophobic arthouse piece feels clammy rather than chilling, along the lines of The Babadook and It Comes At Night. Aster is clearly a consummate storyteller with tricks up his sleeve, but his desire to underpin a spiritual ghost story with traditional folklore goes awry in the final denouement.

And what a grim lot his Graham family are. Living in their morbid house in the dank Pacific Northwest, they make a morose and dysfunctional foursome, headed by Gabriel Bryne’s simpering Dad, Steve, who seems lost behind a pair of opaque ‘specsavers’. Meanwhile Toni Collette is miserable and malign-looking as Annie, the Mom who didn’t get on with her own Mom, and is regretting it as she reads her fumbling funeral elegy which follows a newspaper death announcement  in the opening scene. The couple have two teenage kids, petulant Peter (Alex Wolff) and zombie-like Charlie (Milly Shapiro) who is prone to tongue-clucking – a aural motif that will haunt you for the foreseeable future, bringing back memories of that well worn phrase from Cold Comfort Farm: “something nasty in the woodshed”.

When another woeful tragedy befalls this hapless household, the family dynamic turns stultifying, both to watch and experience. And this tonal claustrophobia takes a hold of the solar plexus for the rest of the story as Aster masterfully guides us through an increasingly grim and gruesome series of events that bring the sword of Damocles firmly down over all and sundry. To compensate for her feelings of loss and confusion, Annie decides to seek refuge in bereavement counselling and this course of action leads to her dabbling in the occult. But from this moment forward the film veers from suspense to disappointment and boredom, as increasingly matters just don’t stack up and Aster resorts to an outlandish scenario to compensate.

Collette, Byrne (who is used to coping with this kind of melodramatic meltdown) and Wolff are impressive in their subtle portrayal of family members steadily losing the plot, in more ways than one. Ann Dowd joins the fun as bereaved mother Joan who is purportedly there to help Annie in her Spiritual awakening, but actually makes matters worse in unleashing a sinister side to the matriarch’s hitherto grounded personality. And here Collette is extraordinary in a sustained performance as Aster’s multi-faceted anti-heroine whose grief and desperation know no bounds as she gradually – and literally – dissembles. But our sympathies ultimately lie with Bryne’s Steve, who plays the most decent character of the lot, and we feel for him as he holds out to the bitter end, trying to see the light but knowing full well, in his bemused bewilderment, that he taken on another film that will eventually end in a shambles. MT


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