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Review: Hereditary – “Both style and substance are remarkable”

Having crafted his feature debut around the concept of heritage and blatantly spelling it out in the film’s title, writer/director Ari Aster never shies away from proudly wearing his cinematic inheritance on his sleeve. From Kubrick’s formal elegance and Lynch’s mood for the dark and mysterious to Polansky’s dramatic flair and Hitchcock’s suspenseful tension, as you’re going through the visceral experience of watching Hereditary, you immediately realise you’re in good hands.

Most of us will probably never inherit anything substantial when it comes to materialistic things but there’s something intangible that all of us will get. It’s what runs in our blood, codes our DNA, haunts our minds and envelopes our hearts, usually complemented by the various circumstances of our upbringing. That’s the kind of hereditary traits filmmaker Ari Aster explores in his film but rather than telling a straight up family drama, he has disguised it all within the shell of genre cinema.

From the very opening, we’re thrown right in the middle of complex and repressed family dynamics, spurred by grief. Annie Graham’s mother has died and our first acquaintance with the Grahams is at the matriarch’s funeral. It takes a moment for the brilliant Toni Collette, who plays Annie, to establish the character’s convoluted relationship with her late mother. Whilst giving her eulogy, Annie underlines how the woman was an especially secretive person, and that suffering from dementia in her final years only aggravated the distance between them.

Annie’s teenage daughter Charlie (amazing newcomer Milly Shapiro) seems to be the only one truly affected by the woman’s death. So it’s no surprise that whilst having a special bond with her late grandmother, Charlie has a hard time connecting with Annie, although to be honest, it looks like disconnection is a family trait. Charlie’s older brother Peter (Alex Wolff) is a disoriented high school senior who drowns his aimlessness in weed. After the funeral Annie buries herself in her diorama artist work, hiding from her family that she goes to grief support groups. Her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is the only member of this family who keeps it together but despite his best efforts, he has a hard time maintaining the household’s psycho-emotional balance in check.

Soon enough the introverted loner Charlie starts making odd figurines with heads of dead pigeons whilst Annie “sees” her dead mother appearing intermittently in the shadows and believes the woman’s spirit is hanging around their home. But what is it all truly about? This, of course, is for the audience to dig out whilst the Graham family’s delirious melodrama progressively unravels, spiralling into a bottomless, dark pit of madness. All we can say here is that things are not as genre-conformed as the basic premise would suggest.

That aspect is what makes Hereditary a roaring success, yet highlights its main flaw by the time we reach the over the top climax. Filmmaker Ari Aster eventually takes the twist a bit too far, dipping his feet into cheesy territory and that’s particularly noticeable as the film’s first half is strongly built on the foundations of a rather compelling connection between the story’s themes and its supernatural premise. However, as we finally peel all the layers, a certain level of flamboyance in the genre elements undermines the fine work he had pulled off until that point with the help of its cinephile-savvy influences.

Such shortcoming most likely won’t bother all viewers, especially hard-core horror aficionados, but what’s clear is that in spite of it, Aster has made quite the entrance as a first-time feature film director. His confidence with both style and substance is remarkable and his leadership in steering outstanding performances from his formidable cast deserves recognition, especially as he’s directed a great mix of veterans, rising stars and newcomers.

Toni Collette is simply mesmerising with the way she masters the various facets of her broken character. Her emotion is raw and pivotal in keeping the audience engaged with Annie’s terrifying journey. Alex Wolff consolidates his breakout talent status with a nuanced work where every subtle facial expression says more than any word could convey. And finally, Milly Shapiro’s sad/creepy melancholia is so genuine you can’t help but feel for Charlie whilst at the same time being disturbed by her odd behaviour.

In the end, what makes Hereditary a compelling watch is the fact that whilst playing around with genre tropes, Aster (mostly) anchors them to a clever exploration of those contorted relationships that develop within a family. We are all flawed and have secrets and may fall into the trap of alienating ourselves from our loved ones. Yet we must fight and reach out towards the light otherwise, we run the risk of dragging them into the darkness with us.

Hereditary is out in UK cinemas from June 15th.

You can read Paul Draper’s review here.

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