It’s not often you’ll see an American horror movie so willing to methodically process the aftermath of personal tragedy. Hereditary does that, and then some. Hereditary just stays in the hurt. The suffocating stench of flower bouquets at a funeral. The deafening silence of returning to your home after a loved one has passed. The family unit threatening to implode from repressed guilt. This is grief as a festering, gangrenous wound. And how can it not be? Writer/director Ari Aster, in his staggeringly confident feature debut, stuns us with an unbelievably traumatic on-screen death that no one — not its characters, nor us — can quite recover from. The ensuing two hours is like Polanski on uppers: one long, paralyzing, highly unsettling psycho-drama, suffused with awful, exhausting dread, and disrupted by discombobulating detours into the occult.
There’s not a weak link in the cast. Toni Collette is phenomenal as the desperately grieving mother, her skillfully sustained display of unchecked hysteria refusing to let the viewer off the hook. Alex Wolff impresses too as her withdrawn teenage son who finds himself on the receiving end of some fairly punishing situations. More unassuming but no less present, Gabriel Byrne’s stoic-under-pressure dad provides a little stability to the escalating mayhem that slowly begins to envelope them. Hereditary stumbles slightly with some unnecessary, last-minute exposition, but it’s nothing that’ll undo the sheer terror already established by Aster’s bold, artfully crafted nightmare imagery and Colin Stetson’s tremulous, anxiety-ridden score. This one’s genuinely gut-wrenching — pack some diapers.