There are plenty of gruesome elements to go around in Hereditary, the feature film debut of writer-director Ari Aster. As the title implies, though, the most unsettling portions of the film center on the way family can weigh on a person. That’s true of long histories — the sort of heavy ancestry that gets passed down through the generations — but it’s even more present in the small (or not so small) slights and interpersonal infractions that accumulate over time, constructing a wall of wounded emotions that is all but impenetrable.
Toni Collette plays Annie Graham, an artist who specializes in miniatures. She’s busily preparing for an upcoming exhibition when her mother dies, seemingly ending one chapter of family history that included deep resentments, mental illness, and other resonant tragedies. A glumness permeates the house, and Aster does a skillful job of depicting how the foreboding and the mundane often run together. The Graham family lives in a sprawling house in the woods, but the shadows across their psyches are far deeper than those in the corner of rooms encased in dark wood.
Unsurprisingly, Collette is marvelous in the leading role, ferociously commanding a character whose inner troubles manifest in a hard-edged nervousness. As supernatural manipulations began to infiltrate her existence, it’s wholly understandable that she’d grow a little jumpy. In a beautiful morsel of insight, Collette’s Annie is also jittery and unnerved by a chance encounter with an acquaintance in an art store parking lot or even interactions with her immediate family members. Aster’s film adheres politely to many horror film conventions, but it builds uncertainty in detailed characterizations that leave motivations and other undercurrents more difficult to discern. Hereditary feels like it can zing off in any direction at any moment, even as its storytelling is tightly controlled.
Playing Annie’s teenaged son, Peter, Alex Wolff takes roughly the opposite tack as Collette, often withdrawing into tense stillness, making the few explosive moments all the more effective. The film’s most powerful scene belongs to him, due to Aster staging the immediate aftermath of a pivotal, horrific incident with daring restraint. The fierce understatement inherent to that scene carries over to much of the film, and it’s easily the greatest strength of Hereditary. It’s minor missteps come more often when it pushes into the floridly broad, seeking a fevered quality that isn’t needed. (There are exceptions, such as the very ending, which earns its sternly measured bacchanal quality.) The smaller Aster keeps the film, the better it is. Bombast makes an impression, but the more insidious erosion of safe reality can haunt the soul.