Hereditary feels like a nightmare you can’t wake up from. It’s oppressive, it’s unsettling, and as the film continues along its meticulously woven path, the only thing you know for certain is that things are going to get worse. There are not many films that can crawl into your gut with such insidious skill, leaving you to make your way home shaken and upset.
While it is best to go into Ari Aster’s feature debut knowing as little as possible, the driving force at the start of the film is loss. It opens with the family preparing to attend the funeral of Annie Graham’s (Toni Collette) mother, who is gradually revealed to have been a complex and harmful figure in her daughter’s life. As Annie attempts to process her feelings, her past traumas and the fissures between her and her children, teenaged Peter (Alex Wolff) and young Charlie (Millie Shapiro), begin to be exposed. Something is happening here that will tear this family to pieces.
The fact that Annie is a renowned artist of miniature sculptures is a nifty, creepy thematic device, and it mirrors the remarkable control Aster has over his story. Everything, from the uncanny score (by Colin Stetson) to the eerie twilight cinematography (beautiful work from Pawel Pogorzelski), is engineered to make us uncomfortable, and there are so many areas of discomfort and unease that it’s never quite clear exactly which red flag will emerge as the main threat.
Every gesture, every look, every comment could be the catalyst for disaster. Nothing has been forgotten, old wounds have not been healed, and the unspeakable is given voice with vindictive ferocity. At a certain point the idea that there might not even be an external influence on this spiralling emotional carnage becomes more upsetting than the alternative, and Aster cannily keeps several scary potential explanations for the unfolding nightmare operating in tandem. Gabriel Byrne, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd and (particularly) Alex Wolff all do excellent work, but it’s Toni Collette’s film and she is staggeringly good, delivering a searing, unforgettable performance.
Profoundly disturbing and absolutely terrifying, Hereditary will haunt you for days.