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SXSW Review: Hereditary

“Hereditary” is, not to put too fine a point on it, the scariest movie I’ve seen in years.

It’s scary in the kind of way that most horror films – even those nightmare-fuel fantasias that warp all kinds of chiller iconography into twisted new forms, attempting to make what goes bump in the night both familiar and alien – don’t dare to be scary, don’t even know how to be scary. That is to say, “Hereditary” mines its frights – of which there are many – from a place so unspeakably real that the sheer thought of the trespasses against it writer-director Ari Aster (making an absolutely breathtaking debut at SXSW this year) enacts throughout its length were enough to leaden the air in my chest and coat my palms with a clammy, gelid moisture.

Watching “Hereditary” felt, in a way I was not expecting and could not have possibly prepared for, like an all-out exercise in emotional endurance; there were several occasions in which I wanted to rip myself from my chair and run far from the theater, only to find myself unable to move, eyes rooted to the screen as if all of its oppressive atmosphere had floated off the projector and materialized atop my chest and legs.

The less said about the premise of this sinuous, sadistic masterstroke, the better. But it must be articulated that “Hereditary” is so unshakably terrifying precisely because it knows how to worm its way into the hearts – or, perhaps more aptly, the guts – of all those watching. It knows what scares us.

Like “The Babadook” and “Goodnight Mommy” before it, “Hereditary” involves a relationship between a mother (Toni Collette, delivering an Oscar-worthy master-class in emotional terror made physical much like Essie Davis did in “Babadook”) and a son (Alex Wolff, heartbreaking and hypnotic) that is first contorted then corroded entire by unfathomable grief. This grief comes in harsh, punishing waves; it looms large in the shadowy corners of the film’s central set-piece, a stunning family home that creaks and groans as if sharing the weight of its occupants’ sorrows.

Aster sets the stage for this symbiotic connection between location and mood by presenting the mother, Annie, as an artist who draws upon her emotional state to craft her pieces, all intricate dioramas of spaces she’s occupied. The metaphor of a dollhouse, shot from the exterior as if it’s in view of some outside force capable of reaching in and wreaking devastation at any point, is used to such potent effect that it’s sure to be the element other horror filmmakers most riff upon in years to come, though the ways in which it informs the particularities of Aster’s narrative seem unlikely to be surpassed.

The idea that our lives are not entirely our own, that there exists someone beyond the dollhouse capable of manipulating its residents, is one not unfamiliar to those who’ve suffered tremendous grief. Such loss elicits suspicion and terror, the idea that something has gone amiss and that whatever is responsible for it may not stop after the first strike.

“Hereditary” is devious in how it exploits these anxieties, putting its central family through such a harrowing emotional wringer that it feels wrong to be privy to their pain but, through remarkably empathetic characterization, forcing audiences to take on some small semblance of their suffering. Best-written of all is Annie, whose unimaginable despair comes coursing out of her unbidden, yellowing her eyes and twisting her lips into a skeletal grimace as she struggles not to give into the kind of corrupting resentment any character in her situation (again, no spoilers) would feel festering in their gut.

Collette, going to horrifyingly dark places in this role, should in no uncertain terms be considered a frontrunner for major awards come next year. Her portrayal of this grief-stricken matriarch, suffocating in the darkness of a once-lit household like a trapped animal and rapidly turning just as feral, is the most terrifying effect in a movie that also rips screams from viewers with Colin Stetson’s sinister-to-a-saturation-point score-work, some of the most impactful lighting choices this side of “It Follows,” and an unbearable atmosphere in which dread rolls in like an awful fog, shrouding then concealing all it touches.

There’s so much to write about with “Hereditary,” but it’s positively groundbreaking how the scares of this movie function like nightmarish manifestations of grief, sometimes slowly transforming the psychologies of its characters and other times striking with merciless, back-breaking ferocity. As it approaches its great and terrible climax, every fear the film has suggested digging to the surface and clawing out to confront its characters, “Hereditary” takes on a power and resonance that it’s hard to imagine any other horror movie this year matching. This is horror at its finest, a movie that takes the raw agony of pain most of us can’t even bear thinking about and forces us to live – if barely – through it, all in service of a narrative that has something both disturbing and profound to say about what we become in our lives’ darkest hours.

In a way, the film is a brilliant counterpoint to John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place,” a film that opened this festival with a harrowing, also very scary tale of one family coming together in an impossible reality, one teeming with monsters just barely kept at bay, surviving on the steadfast conviction love will be the light that gets them through. “Hereditary,” by contrast, questions how much the family unit can sustain, argues that it is fragile, easily cracked. It wonders whether the creeping terror of the very concept we cannot protect the ones we love will, when made concrete, drive us apart, blow out that love, and its light. It acknowledges that, in our hopelessness, we may instead choose to let the monsters in; and that, even more bleakly, we may become the monsters ourselves.


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