Brick by brick, body by body, writer and director Ari Aster molds a mystic world of horror and dysfunctional family malevolence, a dollhouse of decadence and gore whose true terrors aren’t gruesome murders but the secrets we keep hidden from the ones we love. We could have gotten to “Hereditary’s” end result on a much quicker, more satisfying detour, but even the long-winded, scenic route is ample movie pleasure to soothe our eyes and skin.
We follow Annie (Toni Collette), an emotionally-withdrawn woman following the death of her mother. Annie and her mom had a troubled relationship, switching through phases of non-communication to half-open arms, with neither letting go of the resentment they feel towards another. Annie’s mom was also a fiercely private person, holding friendships in several social circles that Annie was minutely aware of. The fact that her death only has an impact on the emotionally-stunted Charlie (Milly Shapiro), not her father Steve (Gabriel Byrne) or brother Peter (Alex Wolff), only speaks to grandma’s enduring legacy of dislike.
But things get bizarre when grandma passes on. Charlie’s behavior switches from awkward to menacing, cutting off the head off of a dead pigeon at school. Peter stumbles into pointless arguments with Annie, who herself is randomly befriended by another attendee at a grief seminar, Joan (Ann Dowd). All the while, Peter is caught in the middle of the mayhem, acting as a neutral party to the fear, sleepwalking and hallucinations haunting his home. And when Joan introduces a Ouiji-inspired way for Annie to contact her dead loved ones, any sense of normalcy is disbanded as the family becomes playful pawns in a higher game of kindred spirits.
Through this journey from a place of reality into a realm of violence, “Hereditary” conjures delight not through its ample gore but its slow-burned suspense, where the period of waiting for a head decapitation is much more satisfying than the guillotine itself. Aster’s masterful dollhouse direction is meant to provoke anticipation while also serving as a metaphor for the family’s state of being. The family is nothing but unaware play toys at the hands of a higher power than themselves.
The film muddles in its second to third act, where Aster takes his time to walk between plot points when we really just want him to jog or sprint a bit. The suspense flickers away for a moment and we find ourselves thinking less about this family murder mystery and more about how long we’ve been in the theater and if our parking meter has expired. But Aster brings it all back together in a climax that is worthy of the world he has crafted, equally appropriate and asinine to what “Hereditary” has birthed so far.