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Saturday, June 09, 2018

Hereditary

There are certain things about Hereditary that I don't understand, but on the whole, the movie is creepy and effective, and I am recommending it.  It is supremely crafted, and contains some wonderful performances as first-time feature writer-director Ari Aster creates a mounting sense of dread in his slow-burning thriller.  It's only during the film's final 20 minutes that the movie flies off the rails, and seems to be trying to be weird just for the sake of being weird.

Toni Collette gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Annie Graham, an artist who is desperately trying to finish an exhibition of dioramas based on her own life, while also trying to deal with her own mixed emotions over the recent death of her mother.  She is a wife and mother herself, with a family who seems to exist in order to redefine the word dysfunctional.  Her teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) is sad-eyed, and seems to be uncertain where he fits in within the world, his social life, or even at home.  Her youngest daughter Charlie (Broadway child actress Milly Shapiro) is an emotionally disturbed 13-year-old with dead eyes and a fixation on making creepy drawings in her little notebook.  Her supportive husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is doing his best to hold the family together, but even he seems to be emotionally spent by his efforts.  They also have a cute little dog, who is so friendly and spunky, that you just know it's not going to make it to the end credits as soon as it trots into the picture. (Only hell hounds are allowed to survive in paranormal thrillers.)

The family is dealing with the recent death of Annie's mother in different ways.  It seems to have hit Charlie the hardest, as she was particularly close with her grandma.  Annie starts going to a support group for those who have lost a family member to deal with her emotions, where she meets a friendly woman named Joan (Ann Dowd), who seems eager to help her move on.  But at home, things are slowly unraveling.  Little Charlie (unknown to the family) is exhibiting behavior at school that verges on the realm of the psychotic, such as when she finds a dead bird, and cuts its head off with some scissors.  As for Annie herself, she is trying to throw herself into her work, but she keeps on seeing visions of people who should not be there, watching her from the dark corners of her workshop.  There are subtle hints throughout that something supernatural is at work, but for the first hour or so, the movie mostly plays out like a dark family drama about loss.

Aster's screenplay slowly draws us into the world of the Graham family, and little by little raises the tension as it delves deeper into the characters and their individual histories.  It's in no rush to get to the genuine frights that come during the second half, but I was never restless, because the performances are just so mesmerizing, and even lift the material up a few times when it seems like it shouldn't be working as well as it should.  Collette, in particular, is the best thing that could have happened to the film.  Her performance is so complex and emotional, it is a joy to watch.  There are also some moments where she just owns the screen, such as during a confrontational family dinner that comes late in the film.  Wolff and Byrne are given slightly less emotional roles, but they are still quietly effective as two men who are being forced to watch their worlds slowly crumble around them.  And young Milly Shapiro, making her big screen debut (she's best known for starring in the Tony-winning musical, Matilda, on Broadway), is certain to become a poster child for "creepy horror movie kid" after people see her here.

It's hard to talk about why Hereditary works so well for so long without going into spoilers, and this is definitely a movie you should see with as little knowledge as possible.  I will try my best to be vague, but as the movie does start to head more to the realm of the paranormal, it also delivers some genuine shocks and a sense of uneasiness that few films can create.  Even the simple sound of someone clicking their tongue against the roof of their mouth can create a sense of paranoia and dread here.  There are also some extremely gruesome and bloody images that can be hard to look at, but they also create genuine power and emotion, because they are incorporated into the drama, and are not just bloody shock imagery.  For his first time directing a feature, Ari Aster shows a remarkable command of vision, creating tension and atmosphere, as well as drawing us into the terror with dialogue and character rather than cheap thrills.  And when the thrills do come, they are genuine and disturbing.  It's a difficult balancing act, but he shows a real confidence through the first two Acts of his story.

That's what makes the final half somewhat of a disappointment.  While it's not enough to derail the film as a whole, it does seem like Aster starts throwing everything but the kitchen sink into his screenplay, and some of it just doesn't work.  He also starts throwing in some tributes to classic horror films, ranging from The Exorcist, The Shining, and Rosemary's Baby.  I wouldn't say that he was exactly being derivative here, but you can definitely see the influences, whereas before he seemed to be going with his own personal vision.  As things get crazier and more intense, the creepiness actually starts to fall.  He goes so over the top that he actually gets a few bad laughs from the audience.  Here is a movie that is so quiet and confident during most of its running time that it's kind of a shame to see it turn into a giant gimmick near the end, with a lot of forced "spooky" imagery.  I really want to go into more detail, and explain what works and doesn't, but I really can't.  You'll just have to see for yourself and find out if you agree.

Hereditary works so well for so long that it can't help but feel like somewhat of a disappointment when the movie decides to throw all subtlety out the window during its last half.  But, because what works here does work so splendidly, it's definitely worth seeing.  Even if you're not usually drawn to horror, there is enough drama here to grab you, and Toni Collette's performance alone makes it worthwhile.  Ari Aster has made a strong debut, and I hope he continues down this path, and continues to improve.

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