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'Hereditary' Review: A strange, deeply unsettling, and thoroughly terrifying horror film


The first time Hereditary was put on my radar was a trailer before A Quiet Place. The film that followed was thoroughly enjoyable, but the audience was left partially distracted just by some of the imagery from the trailer before it. The bird, the mouth sounds, the ants, it put everyone completely on edge. Then I learned it would be shown at the Overlook Film Festival where I'd be attending in a month, and I was overjoyed. Hereditary was the closing film of the festival, and for very good reason: I couldn't imagine seeing anything else after it, let alone look anyone in the eye. 

The film begins just as the trailer does, with Annie Graham (played with nail-biting intensity by Toni Collette) bringing her family to her mother's funeral. Through her eulogy, we get the sense that Annie isn't terribly distressed over the loss of her mother, a "very secretive and private woman." To say that this film is partially about the oddity of grief and how it effects us in waves is an understatement, strangely finding a companion in another recent grief-via-family film, Manchester by the Sea

The film follows the Graham family as they navigate a life where Annie and her teenage children, played by Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro, are forced to face a long history of mental illness on their mother's side of the family, all of which seems to have bubbled up since the funeral. Meanwhile Annie's husband, played with reserved coolness by Gabriel Byrne, must contend with the fact that something is objectively wrong with his family. New faces come into play, new fears, new anxieties, or maybe they were always there and these characters haven't had a name for them yet.


Everyone in the cast is astoundingly on point here. I've never seen a performance quite as dedicated as the one given by Toni Collette, who also produced the film. She owns every word, every movement of her character, and becomes an unsettling and terrifying force unto herself, a parent unsure of what to make of the world around her, the one she's helped create, the one passed on to her. Alex Wolff is a wonder as well, playing a teenage boy who hasn't quite fit in to the same sex-dominated world as his peers, a young man who becomes entangled and drowned in a guilt I've not seen on screen before. Milly Shapiro is a miracle, diving deep into the weird world her character inhabits, floating in and out of scenes, trying to be invisible to those around her, cripplingly uncomfortable in her own body. None of which would work without Gabriel Byrne, trying everything in his power to keep the family level, make sense of things, and not play into the demons and ghosts his wife and children seem to have inherited.

Above all, the film posits some upsetting questions: What do you do if you don't particularly like your children? What do you do if you suspect someone in your family is a danger to themselves or others? What do you do if you know something's wrong with you, if you know you can't trust your own mind, but you feel you're in danger all the same? 

The trailer and plot synopsis are both purposefully vague, as any more information would completely change the way you approach the film, and that's a good thing. Several of my film peers are hesitant, being burned before by such misrepresenting ad campaigns for It Comes At Night and The Witch (both of which I thoroughly enjoyed while also acknowledging that the trailers were a bit misleading, It Comes At Night especially), but I can promise you that going in as blind as possible is for the best. What you'll get in return is a truly terrifying experience, all centered around very real familial drama. Even scenes that would normally serve as exposition end up being uniquely horrifying simply due to the mindset of these characters, specifically for Toni Collette, who seems like she could snap at any moment. Thankfully the film sprinkles in bits of humor that point at the ridiculousness of the entire situation, for all of which the audience was incredibly grateful. 

After the film was over we attended a party sponsored by A24, and I don't think there was a single person in attendance who wasn't still shaking long after the movie was over. Conversations were interesting an enlightening for sure, but everything was clouded by the fact that we had just witnessed one of the greatest and most effective horror films of the past few years, and we weren't sure how we were going to ever get through a family holiday again. 

Look for Hereditary in theaters June 8th. And call your mother more often.