Never take pity on a film critic. Instead, let it suffice to say that I look forward to you seeing 'Hereditary' and then joining me in having several sleepless nights peering into dark corners and gnawing your fingernails off. A harrowing story of unthinkable family tragedy that veers into the realm of the supernatural, 'Hereditary' takes its place as a new generation's 'The Exorcist' — for some, it will spin heads even more savagely.
As with so much inspired horror, from 'Rosemary's Baby' to 2014's psychologically acute 'The Babadook', the movie gets its breath and a palpable sense of unraveling identity from a fearless female performance, this time by Toni Collette, the revered Australian actor capable of sustained fits of mania. (To watch her in 'The Sixth Sense' or 'Velvet Goldmine' is to only get a taste of how deep she goes here.) Collette plays Annie, an artist who constructs uncannily realistic dioramas: miniature rooms that embody the film's theme of a larger, malevolent entity playing with human toys.
We zoom into those rooms, where Annie is keeping it together after the recent death of her by-all-accounts severe mother. Dressed in funeral blacks are her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), her oldest child, Peter (Alex Wolff), a teenage stoner, and distracted young Charlie (the awesomely concentrated Milly Shapiro, a Tony winner for 'Matilda: The Musical'). Something is wrong with Charlie. Every head cock, tongue cluck and eerie stare into the middle distance will have you more concerned. 'Who's going to take care of me?' she asks her mom — not an unusual question after a death in the family. 'But when you die?' she adds, with vacant foreboding. A bird crashes into Charlie's school window leaving a bloody smear; she calmly collects its head with a pair of scissors and carries it away. Rattled yet? 'Hereditary' creeps forward with an inexorable sense of doom, and when the worst does happen — and so much more — you'll feel like you're watching the world crack open. Things fly out that you'll want to unsee.
Who the hell is debuting writer-director Ari Aster? (I mean the sentiment sincerely.) A maker of several ingenious shorts and, by his own oblique account, a survivor in a family that he came to believe was cursed, Aster has the gifts of exquisite camera placement and generous patience — not merely a summoner of Kubrickian chill but empathy. He seems to realise that his movie, which miraculously carries you over every leap of faith, will live or die on its acting. When Ann Dowd, chipper and beaming, shows up deep into 'Hereditary''s grief-ravaged middle section, you shudder with relief; rarely has compassion felt so desperately needed in a horror film.
Still, Annie, on a crazed quest that will leave you cowering, has resources of her own. Collette grabs 'Hereditary' by the throat and screams in its face. Monologue after monologue, scene after ruinous scene, she fills the movie with an incantatory energy pitched somewhere between confidence and psychotic breakdown. Perhaps only genre fans will recognise this unshakable film as the manna it is, but that would be a shame. 'We've made a pact with something,' Annie says, the fury and fear spitting out of her. You will make it too.