25 June 2018

Hereditary review

Empathy is a funny old thing. The ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes and imagine what it must feel like to be in the same situation as them is, as far as I'm aware, a uniquely human trait, one that allows us to be more compassionate than any other creature on the face of the planet. It's also something that we often choose to ignore when it might be an inconvenience, shutting ourselves off from the plight of others if it might disrupt something as simple as the way we like to think of the world, or the ease with which we go about living our lives. Empathy is behind all that humanity should be most proud of; our ability to ignore it is responsible for our most terrible acts.

Which is part of what makes Hereditary, a film that plays with empathy throughout, such an interesting movie. It's a horror film first and foremost, but behind that there's a story of family, loss and the strain that can put on any relationship that ultimately ends up being Hereditary's most compelling feature. Yes, it's a film that asks more of its audience than a lot of horror films do, both in the level you're expected to engage with the material and in accepting a handful of what can only be described as goofy moments - but it's also got a lot more to offer than a lot of horror films too, a trade off that is at least in my eyes completely worth it.

The general set up is simple enough - you've got a fairly ordinary family of four who have recently lost their grandmother, which quite naturally puts a strain on them all - but it's the way that Hereditary builds on that which keeps the audience engaged throughout. For all the traditional horror that Hereditary throws at its audience come the finale, it's ultimately the tense family drama at the heart of it that holds Hereditary's most potent scares, all of which are rooted in our ability to empathise - or more accurately, the fact we can't help but empathise - with these characters and the situations they find themselves in. We're left to sit and stew with this family as their situation only grows worse through a series of slowly escalating but wholly believable events, pushing them into conflict with one another in understandable ways and only shortening the fuse on this already ticking time bomb. This is where a lot of Hereditary's tension comes from, simply seeing the breakdown of this family in pretty much real time, which when combined with the masterful way that Hereditary doles out new information about this family and their history together adds up to create a deeply engaging piece of drama.

But the real genius of this is that it never feels like a simple drama. That might be the area that the first half of Hereditary's story is almost solely operating in, but the actual film-making is in full blown horror mode throughout, lending even the most otherwise ordinary of scenes an extra sense of dread and tension that only adds to the films distinctive atmosphere and sense of mystery, again long before Hereditary actually plays its hand. The sound design is phenomenal, ensuring that when a noise is meant to startle or creep you out it's easily able to do so, and the cinematography is frankly like nothing I've ever seen before, playing with negative space, lighting, movement and even your own eyes' ability to adapt to darkness in order to keep you off balance and frantically searching the screen for what you think might be hiding there throughout.

None of which would mean much if you didn't care about these characters, but thanks to a number of really good performances alongside the aforementioned layered writing, you do. Everyone has their part to play in Hereditary, from the overtly creepy daughter played by Milly Shapiro to the resigned father played by Gabriel Byrne, but ultimately it's Toni Collette and Alex Wolff as the mother and son respectively who deserve the most recognition. They're the two most interesting, relatable characters in the film, and the relationship between the two of them is vital to Hereditary's success - a success that is never in danger thanks to the powerful, vulnerable and deeply human performances they're each giving. It'll never happen thanks to Hereditary's status as a genre movie, but I'd be more than happy to see both Collette and Wolff given some recognition come awards time - they most certainly deserve it, each of them adding far more to their characters than the script might've indicated and really knocking the film itself up a few notches in the process.

All of which - the film-making, the performances, the empathy we have for these characters - culminates in a scene about halfway through Hereditary that genuinely shook me to my very core, a sequence of events so tragic yet believable that it breaks your heart as it keeps you on the very edge of your seat at the exact same time. As I said earlier, there's a lot of traditional horror in Hereditary come the finale, but the most potent and affecting scare comes from how much you feel for these characters and how easy it is to imagine yourself in the same awful situation, and that's scary on a level that most films aren't even able to reach for, let alone achieve. If this particular scene doesn't end up being my favorite scene of 2018, I'll eat my hat - I've never seen anything quite like it, and it makes Hereditary worth the price of admission all on its own.

Which is why Hereditary's more traditional (some might go so far as to say inferior, or uninspired) ending doesn't bother me as much as it could've. No, it isn't as original or interesting as the hour and a half that precedes it, but that doesn't change how brilliant that hour and a half was, and ultimately it still took a good twenty minutes or so for my heart rate to stabilise upon leaving the cinema even with an ending that's imperfect at best. Flaws and all, this is a film that made me more tense, more anxious and more fundamentally scared than any film I've maybe ever seen in the cinema, a feat made only all the more impressive by the fact that this is the first feature length film from director Ari Aster. No, it's not for everyone (and its D+ Cinemascore is more than proof of that), but for those who have also enjoyed the more artistically inclined horror films of the last few years, Hereditary is going to be nothing short of a really great couple of hours.

5 stars

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