The poor souls populating Ari Aster's soul-shaking slow-horror film Hereditary slide, over the film's running time, ever closer to their inevitable fates, as though their paths were preordained. I mean that not just in the movie sense that a screenwriter -- in this case Aster -- has scripted out what they'll do and say. Instead, it always seems that there's no other way for this story to play out. Aster's characters foolishly believe that they can tough their way through one catastrophe after another, while Aster (making his feature debut) and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski invite us to linger in the shadows of a creaky, sullen woodside home, covering our mouths as we face our certainty about what will become of these people. The horror of Hereditary lays not just in scary images but in creeping sense that free will is a joke, and bad luck can be as inescapable as a family curse.
The story opens with Annie (Toni Collette) reluctantly mourning her difficult mother Ellen, whom she memorializes in a eulogy as "secret" and "private." The film belongs to Collette, whose convincing rantings, ravings and tearful outbursts, mixed with morose long stares, create a totally believable portrait of a grieving woman, even as she genuinely scared me -- real grief is terrifying.
Aster and Pogorzelski favor a wide, busy frame, which drives the eye to move around it, taking in every element of the picture. Watching is like playing one of those Photo Hunt spot-the-difference games, trying to suss out what has possibly changed from the last time Aster showed us this room.