Creepy, creepy, creepy. Writer-director Ari Aster makes an impressively unnerving debut with “Hereditary,” a meticulously crafted horror thriller starring Toni Collette.
As Annie, the harried, confused artist at the center of this domestic dystopia, Collette delivers the most all-in performance of her recent career, plunging headlong into her character’s increasingly terrorized and terrified psyche. Benefiting from equally assured turns from Gabriel Byrne, as Annie’s impassive husband, Steve, and the young actors Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro as their kids, Peter and Charlie, “Hereditary” elaborates on the familiar theme of haunted houses and cursed families with precision and imagination – at least until its chaotic endgame. At that point, the allusions Aster has so tantalizingly built up disintegrate into graphic gore and on-the-nose literalism.
Until that unfortunate turn, though, horror fans are in for one wild ride. “Hereditary” begins with the funeral of Annie’s mother, described in her daughter’s less-than-effusive eulogy as one prone to “secret rituals” and emotional withholding. Upon returning to their gorgeous Craftsman home – “Hereditary” was filmed in Utah, taking full advantage of the countryside’s lush scenery – Annie, Steve and their children disperse and atomize, with Annie retreating to her studio to work on the dollhouse-like art installations that are her specialty.
Those miniaturized versions of her life, which recall the work of photographer Laurie Simmons, are clearly Annie’s way of processing grief, ambivalence and more profound losses that she can’t quite name. Despite her family’s obvious prosperity, all is not well with Annie and her family. Charlie, who is given to making disturbing sculptures and odd clucking noises with her tongue, seems to have withdrawn into her own world. Meanwhile, Peter focuses on getting stoned in his bedroom and bickering with his mom.
“Hereditary” is punctuated midway through by an event that is shocking, both in and of itself, but also in its aftermath. The degree to which the audience buys into what ensues will differ with each viewer’s threshold for disbelief. But even as the core story goes crazily off the rails, Aster evinces a fine eye for world-building and detail, his carefully constructed environments echoing Annie’s own precious but often disquieting tableaus.
Although “Hereditary” is most notably a showcase for Collette, who calibrates Annie’s unease and rising hysteria with the steady accuracy of a surgeon, Wolff and Shapiro deserve praise for depictions of adolescent angst that feel both lived-in and otherworldly. This is the kind of movie that draws immediate comparisons to the everyday surrealism and psychological dread of Roman Polanski and David Lynch, while forging its own weird aesthetic path.
What does it all mean? Maneuvering the camera like an unseen spirit, Aster provides some bread crumbs along the way, including an unsubtle reference to the sacrifice of Iphigenia in Greek mythology in one of Peter’s high school classes. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Wolff possesses a fine-featured face that would be right at home on a classical frieze). Whereas “Hereditary” at first seems to be of a piece with such recent films as “The Babadook,” “The Witch” and “Raw,” it takes a pulpy, supernatural turn that effectively stops any allegorical potential in its tracks.
“Hereditary” is staged, photographed and acted so brilliantly, and brings up issues of motherhood, resentment and creativity with such subtlety, that it’s tempting to overlook its alternately astonishing and laughable excesses. For a while there, this movie is going places, even if the final destination isn’t nearly as fascinating as the journey.