I love horror, I love A24 and I love arthouse films. I especially love it when the two aforementioned styles meld together to create an atmospheric experience. That’s probably why I was so excited for one of the most talked about and praised horror movies to come around over the last decade, or maybe even couple decades, “Hereditary”. With all the buzz surrounding this film I just had to see it for myself and, if I’m being honest, I can’t say that my high expectations were met even with my love and appreciation for more subtle and human horror experiences. However, that doesn’t make this movie bad by any means. Still, is it truly the work of art that many have claim it to be, or is “Hereditary” a missed opportunity? I’m gonna tell you what I think, as I tend to do. This is my review of “Hereditary”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
After the death of her mother, miniature model artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) struggles with finding peace with the loss and the rocky relationship she had with her mother while also dealing with friction within her household. Despite having a loving husband in Steve (Gabriel Byrne) Annie struggles to find common ground with her quirky daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and her teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff). After yet another tragic event in the family those bonds are tested even more and Annie falls into a depression as she struggles with the horror her family has experienced. This leads her to form a bond with a woman named Joan (Ann Dowd) who teaches Annie how to communicate with the dead in hopes that it helps Annie find her peace of mind. Strange things soon begin to take place among the members of the Graham family while Annie digs deeper into her mother’s past and realizes that the unfortunate events that have fallen upon them may not be by coincidence. They may be connected to a larger conspiracy and curse passed down from her mother and herself to her children.
This review is going to be an interesting one because there was a LOT that I loved about “Hereditary” and a lot that rubbed me the wrong way. It’s a divisive movie at best in my opinion that rides the line between being truly terrifying and resonant and maybe too pretentious and artistic. To start with the positives though I have to give “Hereditary” credit for its depiction of some very human terror. The film handles the struggles and emotional impact of loosing a loved one tastefully diving deep into a more subtle horror, the reality of mortality, that can impact literally anyone at any time. Much of the terror in this film is through discomfort and it truly is an uncomfortable experience to behold just from a human perspective. We’re made to truly feel like we’re getting a glimpse into some very private moments we shouldn’t get to see. On the one hand it’s an effective horror film that packs disturbing imagery and some truly frightening scenes that shock in the right ways without being too over the top. On the other hand it’s also a fine family drama that juggles the struggles of parenthood, depression and loss in a nice package that gives it a more human feel. While these two approaches don’t always meld properly, which I’ll discuss later, it’s important for me to acknowledge that “Hereditary” does offer a lot of substance.
The performances in this movie are absolutely fantastic. Tony Collette leads the way with an Oscar worthy portrayal of Annie, a woman dealing with the loss of her estranged mother while also trying to come to grips with the damaged relationship she has with her kids and the troubled history her family has that has left its mark on her own mentality. Her performance is magnificent and captivating especially when we see her struggling with her grief and the emotional weight of the film’s events as well as the genuine fear and anxiety of how her actions may have affected her family in a more supernatural way. Another standout performance is Milly Shapiro who play’s Annie’s daughter Charlie. Milly owns her role as a strange and unique young lady and shows a lot of promise as a growing young actress able to invest in a role to bring out the detailed and subtle characteristics associated with her character. Alex Wolff continues to impress in his best performance to date as Annie’s estranged son Peter who plays a much larger role in the film than I expected while Gabriel Byrne serves as the level-headed patriarch of the household, Annie’s husband Steve, and remains skeptical and even at times genuinely confused as almost any normal human would be if their spouse embraced the supernatural and their family fell apart. It’s a small cast but they totally own it and create a fully fleshed out family dynamic more defined and relatable than many we tend to see in any genre of cinema but in horror especially.
Overall “Hereditary” is a quality film if you can get by some of the frustrations I’ll discuss later. Writer and rookie director Ari Aster had a vision and he saw it through presenting an intriguing look at human fear and supernatural horror that most films tend to overdo. The story draws most of its impact from human emotion rather than jump scares and gore and actually does include a very engrossing story, even if it’s not quite as engaging as I would have liked and yes there is a different. All the pieces are here, and they come together to give us something subtly majestic and socially significant. Despite the flaws I will soon point out in “Hereditary” I can’t fault it as a bad film. It’s a very good movie deep down that tells a great story which evolves into a more complex horror tale with time. It’s not a film for the faint of heart and is guaranteed to disappoint a lot of people because of its approach to storytelling, but when you get right down to it if you avoid pigeonholing it into any specific expectations based on genre clichés “Hereditary” shines as a true cinematic achievement. As I’ve said repeatedly though, it’s not without its flaws.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
“Hereditary” first and foremost is a very tough movie to watch in more ways than one even for a guy like me who truly appreciates and absorbs the idea of arthouse entertainment. While yes it’s tough to watch because of its emotional weight and content, it’s even more difficult to view because its pacing. “Hereditary” is a REALLY slow burn that, to put it bluntly, takes forever to get to the point. At nearly 2 hours and 10 minutes long “Hereditary” is extremely drawn out. Now this doesn’t mean there’s a lot of fat to the movie, in fact there’s very little, but regardless the attempt to draw out a supernatural story over that extended period of time while also focusing on character development doesn’t pay off here. It takes forever for the creepy stuff to start and while the family drama is great to behold that’s not the kind of film we were promised nor does it feel like the kind of project “Hereditary” was meant to be.
To be more specific in my criticism, “Hereditary” feels like two very different movies melded together. The entire first hour is a family drama, dealing with the death and emotional terror this family faces, and the supernatural element and scares don’t even come into play until the second hour, or halfway through the second act. The film can literally be split in half and provide the makings for two quality films on their own, but when put together it creates a drawn-out experience that never really blends and at times even seems to forget what it truly wants to be. That was my biggest gripe with this film is that there’s a certain lack of identity and the story is presented at such a slow pace that even with my open-minded approach to these kinds of films I found it hard to get invested. Now I’ve praised films in the past that were more subtle horror features like “It Comes at Night” and “Mother!” and I even enjoyed a similarly slow A24 offering called “The Witch”, but “Hereditary” didn’t offer the same satisfaction for me. It’s alright to have a slow build, but the payoff has to be there and the atmosphere and general tone need’s to remain spooky and foreboding. This film barely accomplishes that in the first hour. To put it bluntly there were a lot of moments that were just downright boring. If it was shorter and more concise then I probably would have appreciated it more.
Even when it kicks into high gear (finally) “Hereditary” ends up being pretty low on legitimate scares outside of its examination of human emotion. The final half hour is the scariest part of the film with a few great jump scares and a more fully explored supernatural element that doed pay off. However, it takes so long to get to that point it’s downright frustrating especially with all the buzz around the movie and it’s “the next ‘Exorcist’” marketing. This is not “The Exorcist” although it is thought provoking to say the least. Walking out of the film I truly felt that “Hereditary” was a bit pretentious. It wanted to be great and revolutionize the genre, but it just doesn’t reach the height it was reaching for. It’s an odd scenario where the film is very very good, but it’s just nowhere near as groundbreaking as promised in my personal opinion. “Hereditary” comes off as a feature that takes itself too seriously. I’m one for more subtle scares and atmosphere, but you have to actually do something with it and in this case it just takes so long to get to that point. If you’re going in looking for non-stop horror and supernatural fear from start to finish, you’ll be disappointed. There’s a lot to love about “Hereditary” but it’s most obvious error is trying to be more than it needed to be and failing to find the right balance between buildup and action.
I can’t sit here and say “Hereditary” is a bad movie because it’s not. It’s just not the full fledged horror classic-to-be promised in the previews. There’s so much to respect about the movie including its ability to touch on grief and emotional horror to make for an unsettling look into the real-life horror the family is facing. It also provides some great scares once the supernatural concept actually comes into play. However, it’s frustrating to say the least that it takes so long to get through it all and see the more traditional horror we were promised play out. It fails to properly blend its family drama story with its supernatural terror making the two separate hours feel like drastically different experiences. The slow pace doesn’t help either. BUT, while “Hereditary” might not be what I expected or wanted it to be it’s still a great film with a lot of atmosphere, incredible acting and emotionally driven fear that we don’t often see done right. For all it’s flaws I still consider it a step in the right direction and a film that, maybe, I’ll learn to respect a bit more later on down the road. For now I see it as mildly imperfect, but worth at least one viewing for the emotional experience alone.