Ten minutes into writer-director Ari Aster’s debut feature film Hereditary I found myself recalling Orson Welles’s famous statement on his first film: namely, that it was like a boy getting the world’s biggest train set to play around with. There’s just this feeling that Aster is having such a great time trying out all these tricks, bells and whistles.
Those opening shots are very good indeed, as is at least the first hour. Annie (Toni Collette), who makes brilliant and sometimes disturbing miniatures of figures and scenes, is coming to terms with the death of her mother. A woman who was reclusive and didn’t sound as though she were a barrel of laughs, it would be inaccurate to say that Annie is mourning her. She’s feeling something all right, but sad isn’t quite the word. It’s a sentiment that is pretty much shared by her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and teenage son and daughter Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro).
And when Annie begins to talk at a bereavement support group, it works nicely as a plot device that lets us in on just how messed-up and dysfunctional this family is.
Since the film’s story takes off in several really unexpected directions after lulling us into a false sense of security, I won’t say too much about it. It is extremely atmospheric in its build-up and uses offstage sounds superbly, in particular with the barking of a dog at one point. Aster also invites his audience to keep its wits about them as he gives tantalising shots and snippets of dialogue that only fall into the overall scheme of things in scenes to come.
The rapidly falling-apart Annie is befriended by Joan (Ann Dowd), who is so like one of the creepy neighbours from Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby that you really do find yourself wishing that film characters would spend more time watching horror movies since it would save them from a whole lot of grief. And even as upset as she is, surely Annie would have been asking questions as to just why Joan is such a damned good amateur spiritualist.
Actress Toni Collette — who has been giving us terrific performances ever since her breakthrough role in the comedy Muriel’s Wedding — has never been better than she is here. She excels in every scene, whether it is delivering a eulogy on her cold and distant mother or talking about her messed-up family; and Gabriel Byrne really won my sympathy as a somewhat closed-off man who is trying his best to keep his family together.
There is a tangible feeling of growing dread to that first hour and I wish I could have loved Hereditary more than I did. It’s certainly a refreshing change of pace from the more conventional horror film.
But – for me, at least – Aster gets so carried away by his own cleverness that he just throws in several things too many. And in the last half-hour especially I found that I reluctantly stopped suspending my sense of disbelief as craziness piled on craziness.
Still, judging from this, Ari Aster is a writer-director to watch and I’ll certainly be intrigued to see what he does next. As far as I know, the only other thing he has made is a 2011 short film called The Strange Thing about the Johnsons. I haven’t seen it, but judging by that film’s synopsis he certainly has a thing for families tearing themselves apart from the inside.
I liked this and would be happy to see it do well; but something tells me that ultimately Hereditary may be more popular with critics than with audiences. Time will tell, I guess.