A good horror film might not be conventionally good so much as unconventionally horrible. That’s the category into which I’d put Ari Aster’s debut, Hereditary, which is disjointed, lugubrious, and often draggy. But there’s no denying, much less shaking off, its power. It’s brilliantly horrible — cruel to the point of invasiveness. When you pare away its demonic accoutrements, you’re left with the most intractably nightmarish arena of all: hearth and home.
The film’s greatest strength is also what makes it so difficult to watch: Toni Collette in a performance so raw it’s as if she’s being flayed before your eyes. She plays a mother, Annie Graham — which as far as I can tell is not an anagram but perhaps an indication that the character lives by the rearrangement of essential elements. Having barely survived a traumatic childhood (psychotically depressed father, schizoid brother, witchily secretive mother), Annie is an artist who specializes in miniature houses full of miniature people who look just like her. Maybe it’s her way of pretending she can control her own environment. Ha to that!
When we meet Annie, her elderly mother has just died, leaving lots of unanswered questions as well as a favorite tweenage granddaughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), with queer visions of the dead woman smiling amid infernos. Charlie, like Annie, is plainly unhappy in this world: She prefers to sleep in a tree house in front of the family manse in the middle of the woods — another miniature. When a bird flies into a window, the young girl picks it up and calmly scissors off its head like a grisly arts-and-crafts project — a sign of both her estrangement and of things to come.
There’s no normal in the Graham house. Annie’s older son, Peter (Alex Wolff), uses weed to cope but becomes more and more abstracted, as if his soul were being slowly sucked from his body. Her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), is a solid, stolid fellow who— having different genes and a different kind of childhood — is insensitive to whatever supernatural forces are at work. He thinks that Annie is going nuts in her grief, which is right — and wrong.
It’s the tantalizing, unsettling, sometimes irritating game Aster plays: Is the horror (apparitions, satanic talismans, eerily insinuating strangers) literal or a manifestation of a poisoned psyche? Hereditary blurs the line, while suggesting — in the grand tradition of Roman Polanski in Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, Nicolas Roeg in Don’t Look Now, e.g. — that blurred lines are an existential condition and that really bad things seep into people with this many psychic cracks. But Aster doesn’t (yet) have visual chops that are commensurate with his intelligence and ambition. He loses the pulse in the film’s middle section, and maroons us with these suffering people. He gets ponderous.
You can understand why, though, with a face like Collette’s to ponder. When Annie begins to speak at a grief-support group, the camera moves in on the actress, who looks like she’s reliving those terrible traumas in the moment while the extras playing group members stare on blankly — she has left them all behind. After one of the ghastliest deaths a film — any film — has ever had, Collette emits wails so primal I wanted to cover my ears; and when she sinks to the floor, the camera sinks with her, magnetized. Later, Annie confides in an effusive new friend (Ann Dowd) that she once awoke from sleepwalking to find herself standing over her kids’ beds, having doused them with lighter fluid — and here she pulls back from the present (“[My son] always held it against me,” she says, as if wondering why that could be) and you think, Who is this woman? I know it’s an odd complaint, but Collette is almost too shatteringly realistic for a film with so many haunted-house tricks and black-magic mumbo-jumbo. It comes as a relief after nearly an hour of non-supernatural anguish when the genre reasserts itself. Yes, the climax is hideously gory, but at least we can pin the blame on the devil.
The question lingers sulfurously: Should you see Hereditary? On one level I’m glad I did because it gives me a new touchstone. Just as the “French Extreme” film Martyrs set a new standard for garish sadism, Hereditary raises the bar on emotional agony. If you want to see things you can never un-see and feel pain you can never un-feel, here’s the ultimate test.
*This article appears in the May 28, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!