Sometimes it's a crippling experience to go to the movies. In this early summer of "feel bad times," there has already been a bout of "feel bad films." Usually I dive into these kinds of movies with abandon, but after the gloom of Paul Schrader's highly praised, dour priest drama First Reformed and now young director Ari Aster's crushing Hereditary, I feel more emotionally walloped than emotionally invested. I do sense that Aster's picture is destined to be a mulled-over classic, in the tradition of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, as it's so rich with searing imagery and layered psychodrama; its run in cushy, foot recliner stadium theaters will likely divide the masses, but there's so much here to return to, to re-examine in all its fury. Many prestige horror movies of late are deadly serious even when they are homages to glossier flicks with crooked humor like Rosemary's Baby and The Sentinel. But times have changed, and this movie in particular stands out from the new crop with its visual trickery, richly nuanced details embedded in hothouse horror that I'd like to investigate again and unlock, when, perhaps, some of the lugubriosity of the initial viewing dissipates.
Toni Collette plays Annie, a scale model artist, who lives with her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), son Peter (Alex Wollf), and husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), in a remote, woodsy house. Annie's mother has just passed, and we quickly see something is broiling in her wake. Aster's film is a journey, so plot points discussed thereafter both fail and spoil the measured, heady and dready ride of the picture.
Annie is a thoroughly electric wire of a character, with seemingly everything on display--at the dinner table and in her churning, sleepwalking nightmares--and yet she's a deep mystery by the film's end. This is a long-awaited centerpiece showcase for Collette's dramatic powers. An actress usually delegated to standout supporting and bit roles, Collette's unnerving eyes, the gutted timbre of her voice, are such a vital part of Hereditary. It's a bit cliche to say you can't imagine a film without an actor but it's not far off course to say you can't imagine Hereditary without Collette in the same way you can't imagine The Shining without Nicholson.
Hereditary is very much a movie about a reeling family, cluttered spaces within spare environments, riveting visuals, and an all-consuming maternal fire. The movie was shot in Utah. The house, and the morosely isolated surroundings (from a treeless parking lot to a dark-skied drive through desolate landscape) are evocative aspects of the film's visual and emotional language. The art direction and sets are masterfully presented--the scale models are fascinating and eerie to behold. The model-like house of the movie is symbolic to Annie's art form: she seems to have a lack of control of the elements ensnaring it while harboring a furiously destructive nature. The looming deadline of her gallery exhibition winks at her blistering distress. Hereditary is a family drama, that like many family dramas, speaks through unspeakable loss, but it's also a ghost story, shrouded in fly-buzzed, creepy crawly macabre. The ghosts viewed in the corner of rooms and the frozen reactions of those viewing them is the closest I've seen a movie get to my own experiences of seeing spirits. It's both unsettling and strangely serene. ***1/2