There’s no denying the frequent blunt-force effectiveness of writer-director Ari Aster’s smugly agitating feature debut, Hereditary, which begins with a showoffy shot that slowly rotates around the studio of professional diorama artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette). The camera eventually pushes into one of Annie’s models, which imperceptibly becomes a life-size bedroom inhabited by her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and their pothead son, Peter (Alex Wolff). This isn’t the last time spaces, and the spaces within them, will be utilized in unnerving, disorienting fashion. (Note, for instance, the many establishing shots of the Grahams’ isolated woodland home that alternate between real-world and miniature exteriors.) Yet the overall effect is gloomy and humorless, as if Aster is doing a stone-faced gloss on the Wes Anderson-parodying SNL skit “The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders.”
Aster is clearly out to mirror his protagonist’s volatile headspace with such disruptive visuals. Annie is reeling from the death of her mother, whom she never much liked but who still had a—hint, hint—bewitching effect on the family. It’s been barely a week since the woman’s burial and everyone is still on edge. Annie throws herself into prep for a gallery show and reluctantly attends a grief support group to blow off steam. Steve gets a call from the cemetery where Annie’s mom is interred and hides some upsetting news from his wife: that the woman’s grave has been desecrated. And Peter acts the rebelliously dazed and confused adolescent, though there’s something amiss in his glazed expression, as if dope isn’t the only demon on his shoulder.
It certainly would be easiest to blame a Satanic influence for the fateful night when Annie forces Peter to take his sickly, mentally challenged younger sister, Charlie (Milly Shapiro)—whose habit of clucking her tongue occasions a few memorable jump scares—to a high school party. Charlie has an allergic reaction after eating a piece of cake with nuts in it. Spaced-out Peter rushes her to his car, hightailing it for a hospital. And then something gruesome occurs that pushes an already troubled brood into a deranged red zone.
This section of Hereditary impressively puts any supernatural sturm und drang on the back burner and unflinchingly charts the fraying family bonds. There are a few snake-tongued confrontations between Annie and Peter that are particularly bracing as long-held resentments come to the fore, such as Annie’s revulsion at ever having children in the first place. Collette’s jittery performance is on the fine line between ridiculous and sublime, and she’s best suited to these scenes in which the horrors her character faces are of the shadowy variety, the paranormal occurrences seeming to spring from a psychologically tangible and turbulent place. Is Annie actually seeing her dead mother in a dark corner of the room, for example, or is it a mere manifestation of her fractured subconscious? It’s best left imprecise.
Once it becomes apparent that the Graham family truly is a target of otherworldly malevolence, however, the film loses its menacing power and becomes a monotonous schlockfest. If the images and sounds maintain a baseline competence—a dread-inducing hum underscores a number of scenes, and the climax goes inventively topsy-turvy with the laws of gravity—they never seem anything other than derivative. Aster’s influences are legion, from The Exorcist (an evil spirit literally and figuratively tearing a family apart) to Onibaba (specters hiding near-subliminally in the darkness). But the film’s patron saint is Roman Polanski, the holy text Rosemary’s Baby. A shamelessly shifty Ann Dowd, overdoing the “is she or isn’t she evil?” act as an occult-obsessed acquaintance from Annie’s therapy group, is essentially Ruth Gordon 2.0. And Hereditary’s resoundingly silly conclusion reworks the subtle Mephistophelean poignancy of Rosemary’s Baby’s finale into a shallow, Shyamalan-lite reveal that negates the story’s fevered emotional undercurrents. The devil is certainly in these hackneyed details.