THIS FILM IS MILDLY RECOMMENDED.
IN BRIEF: Despite fine acting and direction, pretension undoes tension in this far-fetched and ultimately disappointing supernatural thriller.
JIM'S REVIEW: Beware the artsy independent horror film! Usually adored by critics and well-crafted by its filmmakers, this genre begins intriguingly, builds its tension well, only to lose all reason by its third act. You have seen this all before, with movies like The Witch, It Follows, The Blair Witch Project, The Strangers, and mother!...all of the spooky parts that never make a rational whole.
We now have to add writer / director Ari Aster's Hereditary to the mix. This is not to say that the movie is not impressive: it is very effective in its imagery and acting. But it just has such an unsatisfying and loopy ending which diminishes all the chills and thrills that come before.
The story involves Annie Graham (Toni Collette), a visual artist who creates miniature environments with painstaking detailed accuracy. Her precision and skill, however, only seem apparent in her art. As a passionate mother and wife, she is far from perfect. Hereditary begins with the death of Annie's mother, also a fractured force in her unusual upbringing. We meet the other family members at the funeral: her stoic husband, Steve (Gabriel Bryne), her creepy introverted daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), and her unloved drug-laden son Peter (Alex Wolff).
From the start, everyone has abnormal tendencies. All exist within their own traumatic universe, with no one in authority questioning this family's unhealthy choices. Their behavior, to say the least, is relentlessly odd and overtly weird. Yes, there are bizarre dysfunctional families...and then there are The Grahams. When the film's central characters relish in their eccentricities and erratic ways, there is no norm in this new normal. Everything gets all the more curiouser and very bewildering.
Where the film is its most effective is in its domestic family drama storyline, that is, before it veers into the supernatural realm. Strange and unexplainable things begin to happen and the filmmakers create the right tone for this horror film's initial set-up. This is Mr. Aster's directorial debut and it signals the making of a talented director. He fills the screen with surreal images (ants crawling on a severed head, black flies buzzing away in an attic, flames suddenly combusting for no reason, a child's rubber ball bouncing out of the shadows, etc.). The director also populates his story with engrossing characters and many pivotal dramatic scenes.(Kudos to cinematographer Pawel Pogorelski who captures the claustrophobic feel of Grace Yun's strong production design and he photographs the home with low angle shots to reinforce the eerie dollhouse theme with stark lighting and shadow for the necessary eerie haunted house effect.
But the screenplay piles high its contrived plot devices and interesting twists that feed on circumstances which are illogical and never fully thought out. Complicating the build-up of incredulous happenings are inexplicable acts of violence that would trigger the immediate appearances of law enforcement, school, or medical authorities who never seem to intercede. As the film progresses, the moviegoer has to suspend belief to make sense of it all, and some of low budget CGI do not help matters. Just saying that there are supernatural forces at play does not justify the action of some characters and their whereabouts while their motives remain murky at best.
The acting is top notch. Mr. Bryne and Ms. Shapiro are very fine in their roles but it is the conflict between mother and son that anchors the film. Mr. Wolff plays the troubled teen with aching despair. He plies his character with angst, guilt, and a tender quality of sadness. He is the emotional counterbalance to Ms. Collette's shrew mother figure. Partly deranged confessor, partly loving and cruel Mommie Dearest, the actress excels with an unparalleled emotional range. It is worthy of Oscar contention. Also giving yeomanlike support is the reliable Anne Dowd as Annie's new friend, Joanie, from her group therapy session.
Hereditary is a powerful directing showcase for a new creative talent like Mr. Asher. His film may be disturbing and intense, but it is also pretentious and absurd due to his wonky script. Yes, there is more here that meets the eye, even if the mind is not fully convinced about all of those bumps in the night.