HEREDITARY Review: 8 out of 10 (The Model Family)
HEREDITARY is a new horror(?) film written and directed by Ari Aster, in his feature directorial debut. It stars Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, and Gabriel Byrne, and is released by A24. I offered the question mark by the word “horror” only because I think that isn’t really an accurate genre label for the film in terms of audience expectation. A24 is a company that is sort of notorious for this sort of mismanaged marketing when it comes to its films, and it is too bad, really. Though some filmgoers may expect a horror film, what HEREDITARY really offers is more of a family drama with high tension, some truly terrifying moments, and some supernatural scares. For some, that may equate to horror—for me, not quite.
But enough quibbling about defining the genre of the film. Instead, let's talk about what this film does really well. Toni Collette stars here as Annie, a mother of a family who's become disconnected due to her own issues with her family. When her eccentric mother dies, Annie slowly begins to come around with dealing with so many of the demons from her past. Some of those demons include her own deep grief, as well as her family's struggle with mental illness. Alex Wolff is her teenage son Peter, who has his own ghosts he has to face, in between the normal struggles of teenage life that includes smoking pot and staring at girls. Finally, Gabriel Byrne plays Steve the father, who seems to be the only voice of reason in this disintegrating dysfunctional family. When death comes knocking and tragedy piles on, Annie chooses to devote herself even more fully to her artwork. That artwork is displayed throughout the film as miniature doll houses that are representations of difficult moments in her own past history. These various models are littered through the house and are a thematic (and constant) reminder of the representation of family—but as a sort of artifice. Each art project we see is a window into Annie’s past and her eccentricities. Further, it offers the audience a clearer picture of how screwed up this family unit truly is. As the tension mounts and what little remaining ties between these relationships begin to dissipate, Annie begins to lose herself into a state of paranoia and begins to let go of what little sanity that remains. Then the film really gets weird…strange…scary…and shocking.
Toni Collette turns in a performance here that certainly should be in discussions during award season, and Alex Wolff is fantastic running from the realm of spaced out teen to manic and desperate to shell shocked. The film wisely avoids some of the cheap scare tactics and gimmicks it could have, focusing instead on uncomfortable family tension—a horror far more relatable to so many in the audience. If the film has a weakness it lies in holding onto its secrets and revelations a bit too long. This may result in some audience members scratching their heads in the aftermath and the credit roll trying to assimilate what they've just witnessed. But it is a film that no doubt will have them talking in the lobby, in the car on the way home, and probably in the days to come. HEREDITARY is an unsettling and sometimes frightening view into what damage a family can do to one another. Though the film offers a supernatural bent to its story, the real fear lies under the roof of the family home.