Directed by Ari Aster.
Starring Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd, and Milly Shapiro.
The matriarch of the Graham family has died, but still casts a shadow over everybody, especially her teenage granddaughter. As an overwhelming terror takes over the household, the family starts to unravel and the mother has to explore darker forces in an effort to help them escape.
The buzz surrounding Ari Aster’s Hereditary had become a roar by the time the film arrived at Sundance London for its European premiere. Already heralded as the horror film of the year, it’s also been compared to classics such as The Shining and The Exorcist and, by all accounts, is streets ahead of 2018’s big horror hit, A Quiet Place.
Is it? Let’s get one thing clear. This is no bad film. It’s very far from that and there’s a considerable amount that it does well, sometimes even brilliantly. The tension builds slowly, methodically and relentlessly, never loosening its grip. The camera work is first rate with some really sharp, gasp-making angles. The cast as a whole are superb, with Alex Wolff showing a startling maturity and Toni Collette on searing form as the unravelling mother.
That’s not all. Throughout the first half of the film, every strange event can be rationally explained, adding an element of uncertainty to all that tension. Can we actually believe what’s happening in front of our eyes? In his first feature film, director Aster displays a sure hand, holding back crucial shots or pieces of information until the very last moment and sometimes never letting you into the secret at all. The combination of the real house and its miniature counterpart is designed to perfection, imaginative and adding to the air of unreality. Wes Anderson’s style it is not.
If so much of it is that good, what’s the downside? Despite the considerable efforts of the cast, there’s a distance between them and the audience and that all-essential buy-in is never completely there. The death of one of them is set up superbly by implication: another character wails in such grief-ridden agony that it almost rips your heart out. What we don’t need is to see exactly how they died, because we can imagine something far worse. It lessens the impact and it’s as if Aster just can’t resist that final touch and doesn’t know when to leave well alone. The ending has the same problem, with the film completely unravelling.
There’s an unavoidable sense of disappointment in the latter stages. For two thirds of the film, Gabriel Byrne is the supportive voice of reason while wife Colette goes off the rails. He’s calm and grounded and not much else but, in the final section, he starts to come to the fore and there’s the real anticipation of his character and his role in the action being taken in an unexpected direction. He certainly gets a more crucial role in the story, but those expectations are snuffed out almost as quickly as they started. The moment is shocking, but it doesn’t have the impact it should.
Hereditary may have suffered from being over-hyped. And it wouldn’t be the first. But, despite its qualities and palpable, pulsating tension, it ultimately leaves you feeling flat and wondering why the excitement surrounding it has reached such a pitch. It’s good, and it’s an impressive directorial debut, but it doesn’t top A Quiet Place when it comes to turning your knuckles white. Not for this reviewer.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★★ / Movie: ★★★
Hereditary was screened at Sundance London 2018 on 1 and 2 June and goes on general release in the UK on Friday, 15 June
Freda Cooper. Follow me on Twitter.