REVIEW: ‘Hereditary,’ genetic disorder

Image: A24

 

Psycho birthed the modern horror genre and, quite appropriately, fractured it in two: the shrewd and the artful. Shameless about their own junkiness, the former function explicitly as thrill rides (The Shining, The Conjuring); the latter harbor transcendent ambitions, couching their frights in atmosphere and metaphor (The Innocents, It Follows). There’s some crossover, of course. For all its pyrotechnics, The Descent has something to say about gender, while The Others has a few genuine scares. But, with the possible exception of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the division is as distinct as Norman Bates and his mother.

 

Hereditary mangles that schism. It’s as harrowing as it is incisive—an unhinged masterwork of narrative and formal construction. The movie opens with an obituary: Ellen Taper Leigh, aged 78, has passed. Annie (Toni Collette, all-in) struggles to gracefully eulogize her live-in mother (“She was a private person with private anxieties.”), and neither her husband nor their teenage son are especially devastated by the loss. Only Annie’s developmentally disabled daughter Charlie is bereft—the grandmother and granddaughter appear to have been close. From there, Hereditary spends much of its relatively funereal first half exploring Annie’s initial denial and growing acceptance of her mother’s toxic influence. At a group therapy session, Annie reveals an alarming family history: before succumbing to dementia, her mother suffered from Dissociative Identity Disorder; her father, stricken with “psychotic depression,” starved himself to death (“With all that entails,” she adds elliptically); her dearly departed brother, finally, was a schizophrenic. As we start to question Annie’s own stability—the movie is called Hereditary, after all—Ellen doesn’t seem to be resting in anything like peace.

 

Slowly and deliberately, the movie establishes a set of formal rules that pay off in its spectacularly unhinged back half. Annie is a successful diorama artist who recreates her life in miniature, and the setting’s geographic details are rendered in a single-shot tour of her studio. The dollhouse motif extends to the precise, static framing, which appears to capture every corner of a room—a trick that turns unbearable when the lights dim or, at crucial moments, a character’s visual perspective obscures the space just beyond the frame’s edges.

 

That teetering sense of ease and unease—prodded by a black-hole sense of humor—grows to such an extent that, as Hereditary barrels toward its bonkers finale, the movie’s only obstacles are the basic demands of mainstream narrative moviemaking. It’s all so absorbing that, once things shift into high gear, plot machinations can’t hold a candle to the movie’s fireworks.

 

But those seemingly extraneous detours click into place as the credits roll. Careful readers will note a canonical genre masterpiece conspicuously unmentioned in that opening paragraph. That’s intentional. Conceptually, Hereditary plays as an explicit response and companion to one of the funniest, most incisive horror movies ever made. That it so artfully balances its eager, metatextual playfulness with an unparalleled fusion of visceral and psychological ferocity betrays the movie’s fundamental brilliance. Hereditary should be—and often is—agonizing; it’s also, like the very best movies of any genre, downright exhilarating.

 

Hereditary. Written and directed by Ari Aster. Starring Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, and Gabriel Byrne. Opens in Kansas City June 8, 2018.

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