Release Date: June 8th 2018
Director: Ari Aster
Country of Origin: United States
Runtime: 2 hour 7 minutes
From critics calling it the horror film of the year to this generation’s The Exorcist, there is a veritable critical storm surrounding Hereditary at the moment, but does it really live up to the hype? I first saw the trailer before watching A Quiet Place and knew this was a film that simply couldn’t be missed. Its tragically late release date in the UK meant that I had to wait a little longer to get around to it, but I’m finally ready to share my thoughts on whether or not this really is the must-see horror title of the year.
Hereditary follows the story of a miniaturist artist named Annie Graham (Toni Collette), who lives with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), their son Peter (Alex Wolff), and their daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Annie has recently suffered the loss of her mother, Ellen, who led an intensely secretive life and who fostered an unusually close relationship with her granddaughter Charlie. In the fallout of Ellen’s death, Annie struggles to simultaneously reconnect with her daughter Charlie and to adequately process her own complex relationship with her mother. I won’t say much more than that on the plot, because the trailer kept the premise deliberately vague and to give anything more away would be to spoil the fun.
Where the film succeeds almost immediately is in its staggeringly strong cast. Toni Collette is utterly spellbinding in her portrayal of a mother on the brink of emotional and mental collapse, while Gabriel Byrne’s understated performance as the compassionate yet frustrated father is no less powerful. As one of the main focuses of the narrative, Milly Shapiro could have all too easily allowed her character as the troubled daughter Charlie to collapse into the “demon child” stereotype popularised by films like The Omen or The Ring, but instead offers up a character that is remarkably complex and three dimensional. The real surprise performance comes from Alex Wolff as Peter, whose portrayal in the film trailer would have you believe he was relegated solely to the task of a supporting character. Rather than simply being a buffer for the other members of his family, Alex Wolff’s performance offers a realism that is at times extremely disquieting and truly immerses you in his character’s experience of the unfolding events.
In terms of the story, the first half of the film is perhaps some of the greatest cinema that I’ve seen in the past decade. The narrative subverts audience’s expectations in the most shocking and brilliant of ways, which honestly took my breath away and raised my expectations to arguably impossible heights. I would align myself with Mark Kermode’s excellent dissection of the film and say that, unfortunately, it is this outstanding start and those high expectations that somewhat ruin the second half. While the first half of the film is subtle in its storytelling and gritty in its portrayal of the Graham family, the second half is rife with unnecessary exposition and favours the relatively uninteresting supernatural elements of the story over the intense psychological exploration on which the first half was founded.
This is not to say that the film is not worth watching; I still believe it one of the greatest horror films to come out this year and would absolutely recommend it. The main problem is that it starts so strongly, but fails to live up to the promises that it makes. The disappointment I felt towards the end of the film was tragically enhanced by how much I had enjoyed the first half and the fact that it starts to lose momentum in its closing acts also diminishes how scary it is. While the first half is undeniably unsettling and the gradual build-up of tension quickly got under my skin, the second half does little to maintain the pace and leads to an ending that is somewhat messy.
There were parts of the closing sequence that were wonderfully eerie and brought back the sense of terror I had felt at the start of the film, but these were undercut by certain scenes that were almost comical and jarred me so badly that I really struggled to properly engage with the ending. With those critiques aside, I would urge anyone and everyone to watch this film for themselves before passing judgement. After all, this is a film that is certain to polarise opinion, and it is only truly great films that evoke such strong feelings.
Acting: 9/10, a powerhouse performance from Toni Collette is bolstered by incredible performances from Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, and Milly Shapiro.
Storyline: 8/10, the in-depth psychological portrait of a family unravelling in the wake of grief is brilliantly executed, but is tragically ill-served by its more cliché supernatural elements.
Fear Factor: 7/10, though the film is less overtly scary and more psychologically unsettling, it is guaranteed to get under your skin.
Overall: 8/10, in spite of its aforementioned shortcomings, this is a superb psychological thriller that is sure to delight, shock, and terrify.