Outstanding start can’t save ‘Hereditary’ from messy plotting

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of A24

Every year, a new horror film is proclaimed a classic, and this year, it’s “Hereditary.”

The debut feature from writer-director Ari Aster arrives in theaters with quite the pedigree. Following genius marketing and praise from SXSW Film Festival attendees, there were high expectations going into this film. Surprisingly, “Hereditary” absolutely lives up to the hype, but only in its opening stretch.

When her estranged mother passes away, miniature artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) doesn’t have much of a reaction, focusing her efforts on her work. Something is not right in her household, however. Her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is displaying increasingly antisocial and strange behavior, while her son, Peter (Alex Wolff), and husband (Gabriel Byrne) begin to crumble under an overwhelming sense of dread that is only increased when a series of violent phenomena begin to haunt Annie and Peter.

Dread is the perfect word to describe the first half of “Hereditary.” Aster comes straight out the gate with subtle writing and direction that prods at the darkness lurking underneath the family unit. He provides the viewers with contradictory information, leading to an uncertainty that creates constant anxiety.

This fear is sold by the performances. Shapiro plays the “creepy kid” archetype flawlessly, but it’s really Collette and Wolff that should be commended for their work early on. Collette is consistently ambiguous, embodying grief but also potential malice, while Wolff is a revelation as a teen overwhelmed by everything going on around him.

Their performances are only heightened by a bold storytelling choice that’s made a third of the way through. This choice may be too much for some, but it undoubtedly amps up the fear factor to the absolute maximum. From that point onward, the film becomes an absolute nightmare — a fever dream from which it feels impossible to escape.

Notice how this review has purposely talked about the merits of the first half of the film. That’s because, in a misguided move, Aster introduces the supernatural. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but he does it in such a way that it removes the mystery of what’s going on. This choice causes a jarring tonal shift that sends shockwaves throughout the film.

Collette’s switch from a complex puzzle to a typical, over-the-top horror movie villain is a problem. Likewise, explicit references to the occult feel goofy, opening the gates for a third act set almost entirely in the traditional “haunted house” setting. Yes, the film looks good, as cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski ensures this film continues the tradition of great-looking A24 movies, but there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before.

“Hereditary” isn’t a bad film, just one with an identity crisis. Maybe another viewing will make its storytelling decisions gel better, although there’s still the sense it could’ve been something much greater.

Still, this film hints that Aster could grow into a master of the genre, and it’s absolutely worth watching for its utterly brilliant first half. While his debut may have been “Hereditary,” let’s hope the faults of its second half aren’t passed down to future works.

“Hereditary”

Runtime: 127 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Score: 3/5