Friday, June 8, 2018

In Theaters: HEREDITARY (2018)

(US - 2018)

Written and directed by Ari Aster. Cast: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Mallory Bechtel. (R, 127 mins)

The buzz around HEREDITARY has been nonstop since it was screened at the Sundance Film Festival six months ago. Written and directed by Ari Aster, it's one of the most confident and impressive debuts in a long while, a harrowing, cerebral shocker that eschews the overplayed jump scares in favor of a slowly escalating sense of suffocating dread, hopelessness, and absolute terror that mercilessly tightens its grip over two intense hours. It's not surprising that A24 acquired the distribution rights--they've been positioning themselves as Blumhouse's nerdy, brainier alternative and the home for "serious" horror for a few years now, going back to THE WITCH, THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER, and IT COMES AT NIGHT, all thoughtful, uncompromising films that earned significant critical accolades but tended to frustrate and alienate mainstream audiences. With the festival hype calling HEREDITARY "this generation's EXORCIST," you can expect the same commercial response again once the multiplex moviegers and the horror scene's notoriously insular "gatekeeper" (© Jason Coffman) crowd gets a look at it. Unlike the increasingly generic horrors offered by Blumhouse, A24 acquisitions like HEREDITARY provoke thought, discussion, and are works that play the long game and will stand the test of time. It's not the game-changer that THE EXORCIST was because horror is probably past the point where game-changers even exist. There isn't much more that can be classified as "innovative," and like any filmmaker who grew up watching any kind of movie, Aster is going to be influenced by the works of others that paved the way.

So to that end, yes, there's familiar tropes in HEREDITARY. Yes, there's shout-outs to THE EXORCIST and ROSEMARY'S BABY. And yes, Aster has clearly seen THE SHINING several times (and other Kubrick classics, judging from some shot compositions and several nicely-done match cuts). But HEREDITARY takes those elements and uses them to fashion a devastating metaphor about the pain of a family in turmoil and hanging on by a thread, a family overwhelmed by grief, dysfunction, a history of mental illness, and other things always there but left unspoken. It's about things passed down, genetically and otherwise. No film in recent memory has offered more disturbing evidence that you don't get to choose your parents and that nothing is in your control. In what is unquestionably her career performance thus far, Toni Collette is Annie Graham, an artist who creates obsessively detailed miniature dioramas of her life. She's mourning the death of her estranged mother Ellen. To say their relationship was frayed and perpetually at a breaking point is an understatement. A domineering, controlling woman who suffered from depression and dissociative personality disorder, Ellen dealt with a lot in her life beyond her own psychological problems: a clinically depressed husband who starved himself to death when Annie was a baby, and a schizophrenic son named Charles who hanged himself when he was 16, leaving a note for his mother blaming her for putting the voices in his head. Annie has a seemingly "normal," upper-middle class suburban life with her doctor husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), stoner teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and odd, withdrawn 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Ellen's passing stirs all sorts of trauma that's been bubbling under the surface in the Graham household--unresolved issues, long-buried resentments, things that should never be spoken aloud, and habitual secrets and lies (Annie attends a weekly grief support group but covers it with a lie about "going to see a movie," and Steve is notified by the cemetery that Ellen's grave has been desecrated but keeps it to himself). HEREDITARY is the kind of movie where going in knowing as little as possible is really the only possible way to approach it. But in the midst of the grief over Ellen and everyone handling it in their own way, something happens around the 40-minute mark that is so unexpected and so traumatizing (to the Grahams and to the audience) that Aster instantly sends the message that the screws are tightening and that no one--onscreen or in the theater--is safe going forward.

Everything that unfolds over the next 90 minutes is a direct result of what happens at the 40-minute mark, so it's impossible to discuss without spoiling everything. What can be discussed is the ensemble cast. The unique-looking Shapiro creates an instant impression as Charlie, the Graham family member who was closest to Ellen and the most outwardly affected by her death. Her appearance and her bizarre "clucking" tic (which gets extremely creepy as the film goes on) will probably guarantee her a spot on the roster at any horror con of her choosing for the rest of her life. Wolff is superb in what becomes an unexpectedly complex and difficult role, Ann Dowd (THE HANDMAID'S TALE's Aunt Lydia) has a small but important role as a support group acquaintance of Annie's, and Byrne brings a stoical standoffishness to Steve, who loves his family but is convinced that ignoring the increasingly bizarre mayhem going on around him is for the best and everything will just work itself out. In any other scenario, Wolff's performance would be HEREDITARY's secret weapon, but this is Toni Collette's movie from start to finish. Horror films typically aren't known for containing gut-wrenching performances that exhaustively run the gamut of emotions, but Collette throws herself into this role and into Annie's indescribable pain with a commitment bordering on feral. You don't often see performances on this level in films that don't contain Daniel Day-Lewis.

At 127 minutes, HEREDITARY is long and takes its time building its multi-layered story. It demands patience and attention but it's never dull and there's never a wasted moment, even from the start with a brief glimpse of a creepily-grinning onlooker at Ellen's funeral. It's not a perfect film. Astor is a little too ham-fisted in making sure we know that Charlie has a nut allergy and one significant plot turn doesn't really pass the smell test: as a point of comparison, it would be tantamount to Minnie and Roman Castevet and all of their neighbors taking pictures of their activities and leaving them in a photo album for Rosemary to discover later on. I guess it's HEREDITARY's "All of them witches" moment but this particular variant seems forced. And the final scene has the distinct feeling of a producer pleading with Astor to explicitly spell out what would be best left ambiguous. That said, this is a bold, terrifying, and profoundly unsettling film with numerous moments and images that will haunt you for days. And Collette's performance will likely go down as the best in any movie in 2018.

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