‘Hereditary’ review: Toni Collette delivers unsettling performance in great horror epic

Movies do not get more relentlessly distressing than “Hereditary,” a horror movie that exemplifies the genre’s richest potential.Here is a …


Directed by Ari Aster

Starring Toni Collette, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne

Rated R

Movies do not get more relentlessly distressing than “Hereditary,” a horror movie that exemplifies the genre’s richest potential.

Here is a film that evokes the ugliest and darkest corners of our most fundamental selves, viewing our genetic identity as a maximum-security prison of sorts, considering the ways in which it can make life seem like an inevitable journey toward an ugly, preordained end.

It treads this pitch-black terrain with masterful skill, as first-time writer-director Ari Aster crafts a genuinely unsettling experience and Toni Collette gives a performance rife with such tormented anguish that your heart breaks even as you recoil in terror.

It is an extraordinary acting achievement, a work of great expressiveness and silent distress, a cry of guilt and pain that resonates in a way that lasts long after the lights come up.

Collette plays Annie Graham, mom to teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), and husband to Steve (Gabriel Byrne). As the picture begins, they mourn the loss of Annie’s mother, who had a particularly close relationship with Charlie, and find themselves faced with the increasingly ominous sense that something is not quite right with the girl.

From there, the movie goes in a direction that’s best left unexplored here, except to say that it offers an interplay of the personal and the supernatural that horrifies and disturbs while coming from an exceedingly truthful place.

The movie trades in ghostly apparitions, sudden shock cuts and a pervasive sense of overwhelming dread, with the characters functioning as puppets to be forever manipulated by forces that defy their understanding. It practically moans with despair.

The filmmaker embraces the shock value of graphic violence and other horror tropes without relying on them as a primary driving force. His work is infused with an understanding of the fundamental truth that gore has far more of a dramatic impact when it’s integrated into the core of a story, without serving as its primary appeal.

“Hereditary” is a family drama before anything else, in which cycles of violence and despair established long ago revisit themselves upon the Graham family, inside their isolated home in the woods that effectively exists in another dimension.

The film is haunted to its bones. There are demons lurking around and inside of it, none more powerful than those eating away at the mind and the heart.

Robert Levin