In ‘Hereditary,’ Toni Collette reveals a sixth sense for icy terror

Toni Collette in a scene from "Hereditary." (A24 via AP)
Toni Collette in a scene from "Hereditary." (A24 via AP)
Published June 6 2018

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy noted in a sentence so right, by the time you started arguing with it Anna Karenina was off and suffering.

If Tolstoy got a look at Hereditary, he mightíve added: "Well. Thereís unhappy, and then thereís grief-stricken-hideously cruel-unholy family secrets-horror movie-unhappy."

The latter is the dwelling place of director Ari Asterís fiendish feature debut. Not everything in Hereditary fits together; its rhythm is a little off in its second half (at 127 minutes, it feels slightly attenuated), and itís clear Aster wanted to throw in a little bit of everything, from seances to sleepwalking to malevolent specters of doom.

Yet you may be too fraught watching the thing to bother over a few missteps. Working with a superb cast, a crafty, teasing musical score by Colin Stetson and a steady accumulation of wracked nerves, gathered image by carefully planned image, this movie promises a paradoxically bright future for its director.

Aster also wrote the screenplay, which begins with an onscreen newspaper obituary noting the passing of a 78-year-old woman at her daughterís home, near the mountains. Aster makes no mystery of his protagonistís feelings regarding her late mother. Toni Collette plays Annie, a driven, somewhat forbidding artist specializing in miniatures. In fastidiously re-created tableau, she depicts tiny little scenes from her own life. At the funeral, early on, Annie speaks of her motherís "secretive and private" side. Later, when Annie reluctantly visits a grief-counseling group, she tells the strangers more about that secrecy, along with the streak of madness and loss that runs in her family.

Annieís husband (Gabriel Byrne) is quiet sanity incarnate. He half-wonders if Annie should find a way to unblock her feelings toward her late, un-lamented mother. She does so, without his help, in the worst possible way: Weíll keep spoilers under wraps, but itís enough to say Hereditary makes Annieís children the playthings of the storyís supernatural element.

Forced by Annie to take his troubled, withdrawn younger sister, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), to an unsupervised high school party, stoner Peter (Alex Wolff) concludes the evening in a panic. Charlie, who likes to click her tongue and make a pingpong-ball sound, has a severe nut allergy, ruthlessly foreshadowed by the filmmaker. Peter rushes her to the car, and takes off, trying to get her to the hospital in time. Then something truly brutal happens, and itís enough to slap the audience into realizing this familyís troubles have just begun.

Hereditary may generate its share of resentment. Itís not a cathartic horror movie; its preoccupations and methods are pretty grueling. Annie finds her way to the spirit world by way of a sympathetic amateur medium (Ann Dowd) who takes an interest in her recovery after the highway tragedy. By this time Peterís barely functioning; between him and his mother, the feelings of guilt, resentment and rage run both ways, and Peter becomes one of the "pawns in a horrible, hopeless machine" one of his fellow English class students talks about, in a discussion of Greek tragedy and pitiless gods.

Aster borrows from all over the place, with unusual confidence and purpose. His best images play spatial games between Annieís miniatures and the goings-on in the real house. Each time Aster cuts to a shot of the spacious semifurnished treehouse behind the family home, the one emitting a ghostly red glow from a space heater, itís just as arresting as the previous time. Above all, thereís Collette, who sometimes can overdeliver a dramatic moment or an aghast reaction, but in this storytelling context sheís fabulous. Itís a fierce performance with a human pulse, racing one minute, dead still the next. If Hereditary isnít quite up to the horror-debut level of The Witch, itís still a pretty remarkable experience. And now I think I need to pet my dog, or listen to some Gershwin, or something.