Hereditary (2018) is masterful--a film so full of dread and emotional terror that it will long stay with those brave enough to see it. It joins the recent surge of singular creative visions within the horror genre including Robert Eggers's The Witch (2015) and Julia Ducournau's Raw (2017). At the center of Ari Aster's debut film is Toni Collette, giving a performance for the ages as the film mines the darkest of psychological terrors.
The film begins with a funeral and ends with a new life. When Annie's (Collette) mother Ellen passes away, the family attempts to put the past behind them, but this proves difficult for Annie, who had an especially complicated relationship with her mother. We learn Ellen suffered from Dissociative Identity Disorder and joins a long family history of mental illness. We also learn that Ellen was particularly close to Annie's introverted daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro).
The progressively peculiar events the family begins to experience builds suspense and keeps audience members guessing about the family’s fate. Charlie behaves oddly in the wake of her grandmother's death. Annie sees apparitions. Annie’s husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) struggles to balance his family’s grief with daily life. Meanwhile, Peter (Alex Wolff), Annie's son, attends a party soon after the grandmother’s funeral, which is closely followed by a devastating tragedy that sends the entire family down a terrifying tunnel of grief and despair.
Saying more about the plot would spoil too much of what makes Hereditary an immersive watching experience. Aster has full control of the film's tone even as it shifts from personal fears to the more overt, external forces of danger and peril. Pawel Pogorzelski's amazing cinematography plays off of the audience’s fears of what may be lurking in the shadows, but his style is not cut from the same cloth as modern horror films. Do not expect the slick, jump-scare based camera moves of a James Wan film. The framing here is deliberate and measured and often highlights the things that make this family unique, like Annie’s unusual art dioramas. These increasingly personal and grim tableaus of the family seem to be windows into Annie's deteriorating state of mind.
The trio of lead performances from Shapiro, Wolff, and Collette are layered portraits of souls moving from mourning to outright panic. Aster shows his influences at times but often creates nightmarish images that feel completely fresh and result in some extremely effective scenes. He blurs the lines of reality and surrealism as Annie's mental state becomes increasingly unhinged.
Hereditary has real emotional weight to it. The story it tells is both terrifying and traumatic. This may not sound like a great time, but it is! There is joy in seeing a director confidently build tension like a crescendo of music that ends in a final act, not for the faint of heart. This brutal and beautiful film will no doubt reward a second viewing, something few modern horror films invite.