There’s been a hell of a lot said about the film, Hereditary. A truly unsettling trailer that launched in late January set in motion 6 months of speculation and excitement that, upon its final release this month, culminated with Rolling Stone labelling it the “scariest movie of 2018”. While the film proceeded to smash its projected box-office gross over its opening weekend, stories began to surface over and over again of people walking out of the cinema. Critics have universally lauded it as a masterpiece, while audiences have criticised it for being slow, unsettling, and traumatic.
“So which is it,” he asked in a clumsy, transparent attempt at foreshadowing.
Let’s get the hype out of the way; Hereditary is not the scariest film of 2018. That’s not to say it isn’t terrifying, but if you’re setting off to the cinema in search of some Jigsaw jump-scares, this movie isn’t for you. Hereditary caters to a far darker part of one’s soul, the bit that sleeps, curled, in your gut and knows that, one day, everyone you love is going to die. If that sounds more like your cup of tea then jump on board.
By his own admission, debut feature length director Ari Aster never considered Hereditary a horror film, preferring to term it “a tragedy that curdles into a nightmare”. The film’s slow, psychological descent into madness is intense and unrelenting, and affected a very tangible response in those seated in the cinema around me. Watching a family slowly come apart, and being forced to endure the almost unfathomable suffering of a mother pushed to her emotional limits, the audience were visibly affected by the thickening atmosphere that seemed to weigh heavier and heavier as the film crept towards its horrific climax. A couple to my left could not sit still, their fidgeting increasing as the tension rose. A poor woman to my right kept whispering that she didn’t think she could take much more. For quite some time, the film expertly begs the question as to whether any of what you’re seeing is a true, supernatural occurrence, or in the mind of a family member slowing unravelling under the stresses of guilt and mental illness, and this disquieting, liminal uncertainty is transferred onto the audience.
The slow experience of the film feels like watching someone go mad, and madness doesn’t jump out at you, mask-donned and brandishing a kitchen knife, just as the violins screech to their climax.
The small cast lends itself well to the suffocating atmosphere of the film. Milly Shapiro, in her film debut, is haunting in her portrayal of Charlie Graham, the disconnected, atypical daughter than sits at the centre of the films controversy. Alex Wolff, in a wild departure from his recent stint in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, is arresting in his portrayal of her older brother, Peter, a young manned trapped in a personal nightmare from which there is no escape. The usually captivating Gabriel Byrne’s performance is surprisingly wooden as the father who is desperately trying to hold his family together, though there are a couple golden moments when his stoic façade begins to crack under the immense pressure. This might be my only critique of the film, that in the midst of a story heavy with depth, the family lynch pin is notably two-dimensional.
But the driving force sitting at the centre of the film is undoubtedly Toni Collett’s intense, visceral portrayal of a mother coming apart at the seams. Her performance is a true tour de force that drags you to the edge of your seat and holds you there throughout the film’s runtime. Rushing between heart-wrenching and horrifying, her slowly accelerating mental and emotional collapse as she attempts to grapple with hope, disbelief, and despair, stretched thin across the gap between mental illness and the supernatural, is reason enough to watch this film. It is a performance that, in my opinion deserves a place alongside the likes of Shelly Duvall and Mia Farrow.
From beginning to end, Hereditary is expertly directed. Aster uses a multitude of filmic techniques and inspired framing to foster a truly disquieting atmosphere throughout the film, while offering up myriad possible interpretations beyond the initial experience. Be well advised, however, that not all the traumatic and unsettling aspects of the film are portrayed through character development or clever framing. At the centre of the film sit moments that are truly harrowing, yet Aster does not shy away from them.
In a Q&A on Reddit, Aster admitted experiencing serious trepidation toward many of the moments he had committed to bring to life, wondering if he was going too far, if the graphic nature of what he wanted to show wouldn’t overshadow the emotional horror of what was happening, and if the film might be weaker because of it. In the end, he trusted his vision, and as unsettling as the final experience is, we can all be glad he did.
So, is Hereditary a masterpiece or just slow, unsettling, and traumatic? The obvious answer is both. It’s a slow, unsettling, traumatic masterpiece that foregoes jump scares in favour of a slowly building tension, coupled with tight, lingering, quiet horror. It brings to life more than enough moments to keep you up at night, staring, unblinking, into the shadows, waiting for the small, black thing that lives in your gut to quiet so that you can finally go to sleep.