Toni Collette dominates Hereditary with her powerful performance as Annie, a woman whose secretive mother just died. The first part of the movie shows Annie, her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and two teenage children, Peter and Charlie (Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro) all grappling with the loss. The film becomes steadily more grim from there, and everything falls apart in the third act.
The strongest elements in the film are the acting, the soundtrack, the set design, and the cinematography. As noted, Collette delivers a bravura performance as the loving, increasingly strained Annie. She's matched by Shapiro, who manages to be weird, helpless, and menacing at the same time. And Wolff offers a deft portrayal of a struggling teenager who really needs things to be stable at home. Meanwhile, Byrne's character is in over his head, but he still tries his best to keep the peace.
Most of the action takes place in the family house, which was built on a sound stage for the movie. The soundtrack creates a sense of dread to even the most mundane shots and, combined with the set design and cinematography, the home shifts from big, warm, and welcoming to close and dark, full of unseen terrors in the shadows. It's the perfect allegory for mental illness, the big theme in Hereditary. In sunlight everything looks right, but once darkness falls, things unravel and unsettle.
The writing is strong, for the most part. It builds tension to almost unbearable levels, and underlines its message of children suffering because of something out of their control. Annie's job--as an artist who creates miniatures that reflect her life--is used to good effect, revealing her past and present, and serving as a catalyst for further turmoil. (Here's a great article, with photos, about the miniatures.) Her sharing with a grief support group provides crucial plot details. Another expository/exploratory tool is the Greek tragedy discussed in Peter's class; the teacher asks if it's more tragic to have a choice, or to be a pawn (i.e. a form of "nature or nurture?").
In the end, Steve [SPOILERS], Annie [SPOILERS], Peter [SPOILERS], and Charlie turns out to be [SPOILERS]. Despite having pre-read about the big reveal in the film (accidentally, I swear!), I was surprised and repulsed at the turn of events. And the ending is actually the weakest part of the script!
Now, a full day later, I appreciate how much passion went into this movie. Writer and director Ari Aster told a truly chilling tale of loss, secrets, and betrayal. And perhaps by next week I can walk down my own hallway at night again.
TL; DR: More sad and disturbing than scary.
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