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Ari Aster's Hereditary isn't scary, in the traditional sense. Meaning, the first-time feature-film director doesn't rely on jump scares or cheap gimmicks to goose you out of your seat.
No, Hereditary is scary in an unconventional way. It unnerves you. It gradually earns your trust, because it wants you to believe, wholeheartedly, in its campfire tale so that when the final card is shown, you'll tumble over the edge with the movie into the full grip of insanity. Make no mistake, the final act of Hereditary is an assault. But it's one that this movie earns, through each deliberate and disturbing step.
Hereditary is also the type of movie that you have to patiently stick with until its overall explanation is revealed. The journey is populated by numerous mysterious happenings that you have to accept and file away until the movie tips its hand, allowing you to then go back and figure out if all you endured makes sense. A second viewing likely will prove very rewarding, as Ari Aster (the credited screenwriter) no doubt layers numerous subtle clues to his intent. Days after seeing it, I'm still asking questions -- and usually finding the answers in a line of dialogue or a visual cue given by the movie. You process a lot during Hereditary, and don't fully understand what's terrifying right away. When it hits you, you feel it. It just won't hit you until you are least expecting it.
This much, I can tell you. The film opens on an obituary in the local newspaper. A grandmother, Ellen, has passed, and her family mourns. We meet Ellen's daughter, Annie (Toni Collette), her son-in-law Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and their children: Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). They are a normal family, except not, and Hereditary slowly peels away the layers to reveal their secrets. Annie was estranged from her mother, especially during Peter's childhood, but rekindled their relationship once Charlie was born. Charlie and her grandmother had a special relationship, but now that has... changed.
When I say Hereditary doesn't have run-of-the-mill scares, I need to clarify by explaining this. Mood and atmosphere are more important to Ari Aster. Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night because, in the back of your half-sleeping brain, you thought you heard a noise? While still groggy, you look in the darkest corner of your bedroom and swear that you can make out the shape of a small person, standing still and staring back at you. You know, in your rational mind, that a person can't actually be IN your room. Right? It's 2 a.m., and this is your safe bedroom. And yet, it looks like this "person" moves, slightly, so it casts doubt in your brain and you get a cold chill that grips your spine.
Hereditary produces that feeling, only, for two sustained hours. It messes with your perception. It forces you to doubt what you are seeing. It suggests the supernatural, but keeps you on your heels until its answer is finally delivered.
Yes, Hereditary is one of those horror films that play better when you know next to nothing going into it. There are spectacular twists waiting for the audience, and they will not be revealed here. Since I can't elaborate on details, I'll sing the praises of the Hereditary cast. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle co-star Alex Wolff convincingly puts himself through a physical wringer to play Peter, an unfortunate pawn in a much larger game being played by his family that he often isn't aware of and definitely can't see. He's aided by a somber Gabriel Byrne and the inherently creepy Milly Shapiro, who brings an off-kilter intensity to the unusual Charlie.
The standout, as she so often is, is Toni Collette. How often do we sing the praises of Collette? It's still not enough. Annie is a complicated character formed by difficult personal relationships that Collette -- and Ari Aster's layered screenplay -- reveal in small doses. She alternates from antagonist to victim, quite often in the same scene, and she's always the magnet that attracts your eye in every sequence... even when there's some bizarre and shocking stuff playing out. Last year's Oscar race reminded us that quality horror, in the form of Jordan Peele's Get Out, could compete for Academy gold when it raises the bar for the genre. This year, it's my belief that Collette's performance should, and will, continue to push that conversation forward as she contends for -- and possibly receives -- Oscar glory by scaring the daylights out of unsuspecting audiences.