Movie Review: Hereditary

Jun 7, 2018

Toni Collette attends a special screening of "Hereditary" at Metrograph on Tuesday, June 5, 2018, in New York.
Credit Andy Kropa/Invision / AP Photo

The new film Hereditary opens in theaters this weekend. WMUK reviewer James Sanford says it's an interesting cross of horror, thriller, and domestic drama.


“Insanity runs in my family: It practically gallops!” That’s a line from Arsenic and Old Lace, but it could easily have been said by Annie Leigh Graham, the perpetually distressed central figure of Hereditary, a shocker that owes as much to classic domestic dramas like Ordinary People and The Ice Storm as it does to horror hallmarks like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist.

Played with startling urgency and edginess by Toni Collette, Annie is a sculptress who specializes in creating exquisitely detailed miniatures that create scenes from her own life. The irony is that, aside from her cool-headed, even-tempered husband, Steve, played by Gabriel Byrne, there’s nothing particularly small or subtle about Annie’s world: Everything seems magnified and amplified, especially the inescapable sense of dread and eminent disaster that seems to linger around Annie like a malignant mist.

As the movie’s title hints, this might have been passed down from Annie’s mother, Ellen Leigh, a secretive woman whose obituary opens the story. At the funeral – where even the supposed mourners don’t seem to be particularly sad -- Annie speaks of Ellen’s “private rituals, private friends and private anxieties,” but we sense she is just beginning to come to terms with the truly poisonous nature of their relationship. In a support group for the recently bereaved, Annie opens up about her hatred for her mother so quickly and candidly, it’s as if her defense system has completely collapsed.

While Annie works through her feelings about Ellen, she also has to face the truth about her own kids. Her teenage son, Peter, is an irresponsible stoner, while his younger sister, Charlie, is silent and aloof, the only one who seems to be mourning Ellen’s passing. Charlie frequently makes an odd clicking noise with her tongue that is genuinely unnerving and becomes a key element of the story.

Hereditary was written and directed by Ari Aster, who is making his feature film debut. It’s a strikingly accomplished debut that takes some hair-raising risks and makes them pay off. Aster’s secret weapon turns out to be silence, which he uses to often stunning effect.

His writing is also crafty: Just when you think you know where the plot is heading, Aster veers off in a different direction, and by the time Hereditary wraps up, you may feel like you’ve spent the last two hours on the "Tilt-A-Whirl" at a carnival. Hereditary has certain elements in common with Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, although Aster’s movie is not nearly as abstract and oblique as Aronofsky’s.

While the sinuous storyline and solid direction are compelling, Hereditary is ultimately a sensational showcase for Collette, and she does not disappoint. Annie is a tough character to warm up to, and Collette refuses to soften her up. She fully embodies this jittery, emotionally erratic woman and when Annie breaks down and flies into rages, Collette holds nothing back, wrapping each syllable she speaks in barbed wire.

Her fearless, ferocious performance makes it clear the scariest things in Hereditary have nothing to do with ghosts and gore. True terror comes from seeing ordinary people thrown into extraordinary situations.

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