There’s a shot in “Hereditary” that will make you sink all the way into your seat with dread. It’s subtle, the lighting dark enough that there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong, but gradually your eyes start to adjust — they start to move around the frame because in this movie, no moment is safe. Then you find it and the terror begins to rise, as you wonder when the ball is going to drop. It could be as soon as right then or it could be an agonizing few minutes, but sooner or later it’s going to come and you’ll have to face it. The most amazing part is that’s not even the first time this has happened.
For the first 20 minutes, “Hereditary” could be mistaken for a regular drama film, albeit one filled with that aforementioned tension. After a well-praised opening shot in which the camera zooms into a diorama to become a life-sized room, we’re introduced to the Graham family; Toni Collette plays Annie, the matriarch and a creator of unsettlingly lifelike dolls and models. Her overbearing mother has just died, and as she eulogizes her you can sense Annie’s burning resentment hidden beneath the polite words she says. Grandma was close to her preteen daughter Charlie (Broadway star Milly Shapiro), maybe a bit too close for Annie’s liking. Her son Peter (Alex Wolff) is a normal teenager — contrasted with Charlie’s otherworldly and slightly disturbed demeanor — while her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) tries his best to be supportive for the whole family. Annie does her best to put her harrowing family history behind her but a sudden tragedy threatens to bring it all to the surface, along with a menace that may or may not be supernatural.
Incredibly, this is Ari Aster’s writing and directorial debut; it’s almost unfair how preternaturally talented he is. “Hereditary” is a master class in setup and payoff, frequently dangling little bits of suspense and then ratcheting it up to unbearable heights until your whole body is tensed up in anxiety. Not even the daylight scenes are safe: he uses every bit of framing and distance to suggest that there might be even a tiny bit of danger, even in normal talking scenes. He’s aided by saxophonist Colin Stetson’s excellent score (it’s practically a requirement of A24 horror movies to have a great visual and musical style). Of course, it wouldn’t work if the actors weren’t up to snuff, but luckily Aster got Collette to say “yes.” She throws herself into the performance, processing immense amounts of grief and anger, often stuck in a rictus of horror as she sees something we can’t. It would have been easy for her to slip into overacting but somehow she keeps it grounded, even as Annie grows more manic and desperate. No one should underestimate her after this.
Perhaps the closest analog for “Hereditary” would be Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” — both were debut features about mothers processing grief and resentment, tormented by a supernatural presence. Where the latter was deeply rooted in its metaphor and themes, “Hereditary” is a bit looser. It could’ve expanded a bit on Annie’s relationship with her mom, and the last act gets a bit too exposition heavy for a movie that had two hours to dole it out. Seeing it, however, makes all those nitpicks disappear; this is one movie you won’t easily forget, long after the lights go up.