Mental illness rubs up against the occult in Ari Aster’s malevolent movie Hereditary, about a mother forced to face her familial fears when her own tyrannical mother passes away. It’s a simple setup, efficiently established with an opening block of text that reads like an obituary, but Aster quickly begins to draw out various thematic threads from the narrative root.
The Graham family, anchored by miniaturist Annie (a brilliant Toni Collette), is about to be put through the wringer in the wake of grandma’s passing, which acts as an immediate catalyst for some eerie occurrences. While working on one of her intricately detailed dioramas in her at-home studio, Annie catches a glimpse of her deceased mother standing in the dark, a mysterious moment that starts a string of queries.
Is the apparition simply a manifestation of Annie’s grief or is her mother actually trying to contact her from beyond the grave? Aster keeps the paranormal activity at a minimum for the first half of the movie, but the suggestion of something sinister hangs over every frame. The literal foreshadowing of disturbing events is given a metaphorical overlay that provides a sensitive look at the horrors of living with mental illness.
Annie confesses to a self-help group that her mother had Dissociative Identity Disorder and her brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia before eventually taking his own life. Annie’s own experiences include a spooky sleep-walking stint that nearly resulted in fiery tragedy. As the thematic threads continue to extend deeper into the story, Aster moulds our understanding of Annie’s fear that she’s inherited some sort of illness through her bloodline.
When the supernatural happenings begin to greatly increase, we’re left to comprehend what exactly is real and what might Annie be imagining. Aster seems particularly interested in piling on the questions before unleashing a gory geyser of answers in a terrifying third act that aims for maximum audience squirming. The answers explain a lot of things and slickly satisfy the literal reading of the movie, but in many ways, Hereditary is most interesting when it’s still probing the possibilities.
Aster leaves many doors open throughout, so we can enter and treat each new reveal with an interpretation that works both literally and metaphorically at the same time. Breadcrumbs of backstory are linked to Annie and also to her son Peter (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), leaving us with a considerable catalog of information to pore over as the puzzle pieces are slowly put into place. Annie’s exasperated husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) provides another perspective that contains a series of clues.
Assembling the big picture from such a staggering number of spooky shards that range from expositional to emotional is a greatly demanding task, but Aster handles it gracefully and carefully as he walks a perilously thin line between the potentially polarizing interpretations. He wants us to consider the text and subtext simultaneously, as both have tragic and horrific implications.
Helping to tie the two together is Collette, whose performance is a masterful display of unravelling unpredictability. She continually finds these little spaces in each scene where she can claim her character, imbuing Annie with a vibrant vulnerability that never negates her considerable strength. The script gives her a sharp and dramatically ambitious arc, so there’s a lot for Collette to work from on the page, but the actress makes even the tiniest moment sear each scene, solidifying her performance as a towering rarity of the genre.
The rest of the cast also excels, especially Wolff, who is handed one of the movie’s most shocking moments with an extended close-up and expertly translates the haunting impact of the whole sequence without saying a word. Beyond Collette and Wolff, there’s really not a false note anywhere in the ensemble, which keeps the movie suspended in a consistently arresting state.
Aster’s patient pace and precise plotting benefit greatly from a cast that can capture the harrowing emotional elements of the story, because much of the scares rely on us caring about the characters and remaining invested in their intertwined fates.
Fashioning the frights into an impactful experience is something that Aster approaches carefully and with an affinity for the genre. Horror fans will recognize the writer/director’s curated collection of classic inspirations, a list that’s quite long and seems to have The Exorcist and The Wicker Man positioned at the top, but Hereditary doesn’t feel like a pointless pastiche or empty homage. It’s clearly telling its own story, only on hallowed horror ground.
That sense of lineage, the roots finding their way to so many iconic titles in the genre's highlighted history, is a key part of why Hereditary is so strong, because it builds on the solid foundation of those influences so personally. We can identify the many connections while believing entirely that this is specifically Annie’s own story and that the hellish landscape she is traversing is unique to her experience. By the end, Aster melds the literal and metaphorical portions of the picture to create a portrait of hopelessness so grave that it makes the nightmare resonate both inside and out.