Saturday, June 9, 2018


We begin with a blend of a house set in a forest surround and some exquisite dioramas including rooms in the house we've seen and a little tilt-shift here and there blurs the distinction so that we start wondering which is which. This weaves over an increasingly menacing electronic score that drones under dark corners and bright family portraits alike. This is how an unusual film plays fair. You wouldn't know that from the trailer which tries to sell the film as a kind of James Wan jump scare stravaganza when the film has more in common with Zulawski's Possession or '70s folk horror. The production house, A24, might be a clue here as it's given us such as It Comes at Night, The VVitch and Free Fire, films that crawl under the skin of genre in search of fresh veins. Well, this is another.

It begins like a brittle Scandinavian psycho drama as middle aged artist Annie juggles her torn feelings over her domineering mother's death with an exhibition whose deadline looms. She is the maker of the miniatures and burns concentration over them with jeweller's goggles. Her husband Steve is the calm gravitational centre with the easy smile and soft voice. Son Peter has hit his late teens and, while touchy and self-medicating, seems happy enough. The daughter Charlie is the spanner in the works. Slow to develop, she is withdrawn, scratching out severe depictions of the world around her on a sketchpad and constantly nibbling on chocolate. If the awkward tension of the funeral service is unrelieved all the way to Annie's fury at a grief support group isn't already ratcheting high there is one further disaster in store which will turn this hard play on grief into very dark and weird stuff.

That's it this side of spoilers (and boy is this film spoilable). The turns taken by the plot allow a lot of resistance by the film to easy thematic calls. The grief of the first act collides so rockily with rage that neither will serve as the bedrock. The power centre within the family is so unbalanced but the glimpses of warmth are so genuine that there's no easy bone pointing toward disfunction. Charlie is withdrawn and wilful but not beyond communication. The very deliberate physical casting of young actor Milly Shapiro aided by some unsubtle make-up (some shots look like her face is a loose mask) give her the alienating appearance of a young girl with the face of a grown woman. This is clearly intended as unsettling but is both so hard it seems to belong to a different movie and is a central part of this one.

The puzzling shift from the tense domestic drama of the opening act to the flights of grotesquerie of the remainder might remind the adventurous viewer of Ben Wheatley's Kill List. You might well find yourself mentally asking, "wait, when did that happen? Why is that suddenly like that?" While there are no jump scares of the crudeness of those in The Conjuring scenes from the last hour would only grind against earlier ones. So why does it work?

A story that is not afraid of taking sharp turns away from expectation nor cares much if its viewers will see some things coming too early helps. There is far less play on surprise, despite the violence of the changes, than a mounting sense of dreadful inevitability. It can be very clunky but if you're in for the ride (I can imagine many won't be; there were walkouts at my screening) you might even take these aboard as quirks of discovery. If you can go along you will be rewarded the same way that anyone who stuck through the whole Cremaster Cycle were. A film that trod ground similar to that is 2012's bizarre teen drama/body horror/performance art film Excision. Look what happened to that. Never heard of it? That's the point.

What might save Hereditary from Excision's unfair fate is the cast and their performances. Gabriel Byrne's sonorous gravitas makes us warm to him at every appearance. Alex Wolff as Peter gives us a victim whose sincerity burns through some scarifying moments. Ever dependable Ann Dowd shows us a believable folkiness that has another side (her scenes with Annie and seances are a masterclass of two-handed vignettes). Towering over this, though, is the force of Toni Collette who rages, coos, sneers, hisses and envelopes as no one else in a tour de force that is both showy and thankless. Acting like this can bid us overlook plot holes and logic leaps alike, reminding us that this is a story of characters rather than mechanical perfection. Again, not everyone will come to this but those who allow themselves will find real value.

In an interview Toni Collette mentioned without identifying it that there was a moment that audiences consistently laughed at. I noted it as I saw it and it is strange, a shot of puzzling cartoonish violence that vanishes as quickly as it appears. I wondered at it, thinking it was a misstep but then saw a later action that seemed to balance it with a winceable action that takes a little too long to stop (but then has an offscreen result that also might be comic to some). I don't know if that effect was a mistake or a nod to the notion of slapstick in horror and how uneasily it sits with the genuine, unironic grimness surrounding it. I like that I don't know.

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