HEREDITARY is a film about a family that is falling apart. It’s a film that focuses on the awful ways that grief and resentment can swallow a family whole and leave it rotting on the inside. It’s a quiet film, eschewing jump scares and gore for an atmosphere of dread, uncertainly, and unflinching realism.
The film begins with Annie (Toni Collette) struggling to make peace with her mother’s death. Her small family, already struggling with deep-seated issues, is driven to its breaking point as the film begins. It should come as no surprise, then, that very horrible things start to happen to this fragile family.
Honestly, it is best to experience HEREDITARY completely blind. What makes the film so eerie is not knowing what is coming next. The film completely shatters expectations. Every time I thought I thought I knew where the film was going, something would happen to completely upend my thoughts. It made for a deeply enjoyable viewing experience. Not knowing what to expect, I was just along for the ride. It’s the kind of film that can be watched again and again – simply because there is so much to unpack in this film.
The acting in this film is absurdly excellent. I’ve rarely seen acting this convincing, this real, in any film – much less a horror film. Toni Collette’s performance as Annie is so haunting and so achingly realistic that she commands the film from start to finish. When she is on-screen, it is impossible to look away. Annie emotionally disintegrates throughout the film, and Collette’s performance is brilliant. It’s truly an Oscar-worthy performance.
Annie’s 13-year-old daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), is a shy loner that seems comfortable with being creepy. She’s very unsettling – she draws weird things in a sketchbook, she has a verbal tick, and she engages in animal mutilation. Shapiro really does an outstanding job embracing the character and making her seem realistic.
Annie’s son, Peter (Alex Wolff) is a high school burnout. Peter has been through trauma in his life, and takes to drugs as a way of self-medicating. He’s a classic high school kid, walking the razor’s edge between wanting to fit in and have fun, with the real struggles that arise from his home life. There’s more to every character in this film then first meets the eye, and Peter is absolutely no exception. He is incredibly layered, and as the film continues, the film removes those layers to showcase just who Peter is – and why he is the way that he is.
Rounding out the family cast is Annie’s husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne). As the entire family seems to fall apart, Steve is the glue that tries desperately to hold the family together. He’s the skeptic, the one who just wants things to get back to some semblance of normalcy. Sometimes, the straight man is a thankless role – but Byrne really plays Steve as a sympathetic and compelling character. His characterization throughout the film is very realistic, and Byrne does a fantastic job – especially when trying to keep the peace during arguments at the family dinner table.
The scares in HEREDITARY are chilling in their simplicity. An unnatural sound issuing from thin air during an otherwise silent scene is deeply unsettling. A shadowy character lurking in the dark corner of a room is downright skin crawling. The scares in this film are not highlighted by a sudden blast of loud music or quick cuts. They simply exist, and an inattentive audience member can certainly miss them. They reward the transfixed viewer with goosebumps and a feeling of rising dread. An off-screen scream carries more weight, emotion, and horror than any jump scare that I’ve ever seen. It was about halfway through the film that I realized I had goosebumps on my arms – and they just never went away. HEREDITARY is just deeply, deeply unsettling.
My one quibble with HEREDITARY is its ending. The film is a fascinating portrayal of a family’s slow descent into madness. It’s eerie, with an unsettling feeling that worms its way into your stomach and stays long after the film ends. But the film’s final minutes, while utterly terrifying and genuinely skin-crawling, also resolve plot points that I would have rather seen unresolved. The film is very grounded in reality, and as the movie unfolds, it’s hard to tell if some of the creepy things occurring on-screen are actually happening or if they’re simply imagined. Having the film’s final moments definitively explain the source of the frightening moments deflates the film a little. I would have preferred a more ambiguous ending.
HEREDITARY is a masterclass in storytelling. It carries a ton of emotional weight, and it is designed to inflict maximum discomfort on its audience. It is a quiet film, punctuated with moments of intense dread and unease. It is worth watching simply for the incredible acting. HEREDITARY is an intense experience, and it will leave you unsettled long after the credits have finished rolling.