Hereditary ★★★★½

Powered heavily by Toni Collette's outstanding performance, Hereditary is the most affecting horror film I've seen in years. Not a moment goes by where I wasn’t deeply disturbed or unsettled, to the point I fear my writing on the film may come up short. Even in the case it doesn’t, I doubt there is anything I can say that will adequately prepare you for the experience.

Hereditary is not for the faint of heart.

My experience with it was colored by expectations, informed by trailers and pre-release buzz. I felt I knew what I was getting into, and could steel myself for the film in the same ways I did for other recent horror films, like A Quiet Place and Get Out. But where those movies may have overshared in their trailers, it turns out Hereditary masterfully concealed its true nature.

A twist at the end of the first act threw out any expectations I had about the film. It’s one I could not have predicted, and established early on director Ari Aster’s disinterest in playing by any kind of rules. While it’s true subversion has become paramount for successful horror films, Aster takes it a step further by virtue of the lengths to which he’s willing to go.

There is no taboo Hereditary will not violate. Instead, the film revels in its cruelty, in ways even other horror movies often will not. One death scene in particular comes to mind--the kind most films would cut away from, leaving the results to the imagination. Instead, the camera lingers just a little too long, obscuring the gruesome moment only slightly. Just moments later, another shot lingers on the resulting dismemberment, denying the viewer even a moment of respite.

In that moment, I realized my imagination is not, in fact, worse than what a film can show me.

These scenes were not the first time Hereditary felt the looming weight of the camera. The cinematography exhibits a certain patience, using lengthy extreme close ups to obfuscate even the most banal of scenes, establishing a creeping sense of otherworldly dread. Such shots only become more effective when the true nature of the film is revealed, as the slow pull outs and angle shifts begin to contain horrors I don’t wish to describe--both to avoid spoilers and so as not to dredge up my own memories of them.

Hereditary exhibits similar restraint when it comes to pacing. While much is done in the first two acts to make the viewer uncomfortable--even going so far as to contain the aforementioned death--there isn’t much to truly be scared of. Instead, it plays out like a family drama masquerading as a horror film. This changes, eventually, but not until enough time has been spent with a family processing their grief.

Ultimately, this is where the film truly comes together. Having been ripped apart by loss, the core members of the family unit fall into utter disarray. Rather than growing closer and strengthening their bonds in the wake of a loss, they process grief in different ways--though always in solitude.

Along the way, the script poses questions about responsibility and guilt, framing them masterfully throughout its run time. These questions ultimately remain (by design) unresolved, asking the audience to do legwork and frame them relative to their own experiences. The lengths to which some members are willing to go to find their own answers to the questions ultimately prove to be their undoing.

The question of guilt is especially important, raised by Collette’s character early on in the film as she struggles with the loss of her mother. Their relationship was fraught and tense, the film tells us, and she feels remorse for allowing that to happen. Later, as other people die, her family members are forced to grapple with the guilt of causing those deaths.

Questions of guilt play out largely between Collette’s character and her son, both of whom feel blamed, yet struggle to take responsibility for their actions. As more and more layers are peeled back, the framing of key scenes begins to change. The feelings of guilt are re-contextualized, as are the relationships between characters.

Intertwined with these questions is a surprisingly poignant interest in free will and destiny. By the end of the film, events have been so re-contextualized I was left wondering if the characters had any agency at all. I say this not as a critique--if anything, it makes their arcs all the more devastating, knowing they so warped their lives around events they had no power to avoid. These explorations of human nature, much like Hereditary’s interest in grief, refuse to offer clear answers.

Nevertheless, they serve to make the film a more engaging watch, and an interesting one to ponder. In the moment, I was perhaps too concerned with gripping my armrests or covering my eyes. Even now, I struggle to clear my mind’s eye of the dismembered bodies and deformed apparitions. But my focus can be elsewhere, on the layers beneath the disturbing, horrifying surface.

If nothing else, Hereditary left a strong impression.