By A. O. Scott
June 7, 2018
At one point in “Hereditary,” Ari Aster’s highly effective new horror movie, a character screams “Get out!” It’s not yet clear what she means — or who, exactly, she’s addressing — but the line is both a pretty good jolt and a clever meta-joke.
Invoking the title of the movie that set a new standard for commercial success, cultural prestige and societal relevance in an often-underestimated genre may be a way of acknowledging the raised expectations of the audience. What “Hereditary” shares with “Get Out” — apart from a house full of white people behaving strangely — is an ambitious energy, a sense that the creaky old machinery of horror can be adapted to new and exciting uses.
The film, Mr. Aster’s debut feature, is engaging, unsettling and unpredictable, generating a mood of anxious fascination punctuated by frequent shocks and occasional nervous giggles. But I also found it a bit disappointing. Mr. Aster writes an impressive-looking check and succeeds in cashing it, but on close examination the payout turns out to be skimpier than anticipated, and drawn mostly on someone else’s account.
On the other hand, the minute-to-minute experience of watching the movie, sometimes through your fingers, is an ordeal of the best kind. The scariest line is “mommy,” the most terrifying scenes take place when the whole family is together, and the sound most likely to make the person next to you shriek out loud is the click of a young girl’s tongue against the roof of her mouth.
The girl’s name is Charlie Graham, and she’s played by a remarkable young actress named Milly Shapiro. Charlie’s hobby is assembling makeshift toys out of peculiar objects, including the severed head of a bird she decapitates with a pair of classroom scissors. This seems like a creepy variation on the artwork that Charlie’s mother, Annie (Toni Collette), makes in the studio that occupies part of their spacious wood-frame house. Annie constructs dollhouse-like dioramas that are painstakingly detailed and that recreate, in miniature, scenes and places from her own life.
Mr. Aster plays with scale, size, sound and perspective to maximize the audience’s disorientation. He’s not an orthodox scaremonger, sending his camera gliding down dark hallways in search of the usual ghouls. The first hour of “Hereditary” moves with excruciating slowness, alternating between scenes of eerie menace and moments of dark and dry domestic comedy.
The movie starts with the offscreen death of Annie’s mother, Ellen. “It’s heartening to see so many strange new faces here,” Annie says at the funeral, before going on to describe a “secretive, suspicious” woman who was, to say the least, a difficult parent. Maybe something about Ellen accounts for her daughter’s jumpy demeanor and her odd ways of talking to her own children. She can be chilly, needy or brutally blunt, but neither Mr. Aster nor Ms. Collette overdoes her weirdness. Annie is an artist, after all, a complicated and emotionally volatile person almost by definition. Her husband, a shrink named Steve (Gabriel Byrne), gets along with her pretty well. Their son, Peter (Alex Wolff), can be moody and detached, but he’s a high school student.
Maybe this family isn’t scary at all. Maybe they’re just interesting, like characters in the Wes Anderson movie this one sometimes resembles, both in its deadpan humor and in its attention to architectural space and interior decoration.
When horrible things start to happen, we don’t know what they mean, but we are prodded to suppose that they must mean something. What are those strange words that appear on the walls of the Graham house, and also inside the tiny rooms Annie builds within it? Why do the Grahams have a treehouse? Who desecrated Ellen’s grave? Is Ann Dowd going to freak us out again, as she has in “The Leftovers” and “The Handmaid’s Tale”?
Well, of course. Long before the big revelations of the hectic, hair-raising climax, you may suspect that Ms. Dowd, playing a woman named Joan who befriends Annie in a support group, is playing a part roughly analogous to Ruth Gordon’s in “Rosemary’s Baby.” Like that film — and like “The Exorcist,” too — “Hereditary” draws on a deep, dark well of ambivalent maternal feeling and blurs the boundary between mental and supernatural disturbance. Ms. Collette, at once vulnerable and volcanic, solicits our sympathy even as we start to wonder if she might be the real monster.
“Hereditary” is a terrifically absorbing puzzle until the moment you solve it, when its disparate elements coalesce into a dispiritingly familiar picture. The ending is kind of a reverse “Babadook.” The ingenuity of “The Babadook” was that it behaved like a well-executed conventional horror movie, only to reveal startling emotional resonance and psychological depths right at the end. Mr. Aster moves in the opposite direction, composing a rich and strange portrait of souls in distress and then swapping it for a picture we’ve seen before. Better the devil you know, I guess.
Hereditary NYT Critic's Pick
Director Ari Aster
Writer Ari Aster
Stars Toni Collette, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Christy Summerhays
Running Time 2h 7m
Genres Drama, Horror, Mystery, Thriller