DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The supernatural horror thriller "Hereditary" scared audiences silly at the recent Sundance Film Festival where it had journalists invoking classics like "Rosemary's Baby," "The Exorcist" and "The Shining." "Hereditary" stars Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne and Ann Dowd and was written and directed by Ari Aster. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "Hereditary" is the most emotionally devastating horror movie I've seen in ages. Or maybe it's the scariest family drama I've seen in ages. The sensationally talented writer-director Ari Aster knows that what upsets us and what terrifies us are often one and the same. His masterful debut feature will tie your stomach in knots even before all hell breaks loose. It's a searing portrait of grief of a family slowly coming apart as one tragedy follows another. It also has a brilliant lead performance from Toni Collette as Annie, a professional artist who is about to bury her 78-year-old mother, Ellen, as the movie opens. It appears to be no great loss. As Annie notes at the funeral and later at a support group meeting, Ellen could be an intensely private, difficult and demanding woman.
In the days that follow, Annie tries to move on, focusing on her work and her family. In a way, her work is her family. She builds and paints intricate dioramas, miniature dollhouse versions of her own wood-side home, each one reconstructing a key moment from her past. Annie has two kids with her supportive but somewhat low-key husband Steve, played by Gabriel Byrne. Their son, Peter, played by Alex Wolff, is like a lot of teenage boys - bored, inattentive, interested mainly in sex and pot. He's better adjusted than his younger sister, Charlie, an odd, withdrawn 13-year-old played by Milly Shapiro from the Broadway musical "Matilda." Charlie likes to draw creepy pictures of animals in her notebook and walks around in an orange sweatshirt that reminded me of the red-hooded killer from the 1973 horror classic "Don't Look Now," one of many obvious touchstones here. As Annie points out before bedtime one night, Charlie was unusually close to her grandmother.
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TONI COLLETTE: (As Annie) You know you were her favorite, right? Even when you were a little baby, she wouldn't let me feed you because she needed to feed you - drove me crazy.
MILLY SHAPIRO: (As Charlie) She wanted me to be a boy.
COLLETTE: (As Annie) You know, I was a tomboy when I was growing up. I hated dresses and dolls and pink.
SHAPIRO: (As Charlie) Who's going to take care of me?
COLLETTE: (As Annie) Excuse me. You don't think I'm going to take care of you?
SHAPIRO: (As Charlie) But when you die.
CHANG: The mystery in "Hereditary" concerns the precise nature of Ellen's legacy. It's a movie about the good and the bad - but mostly the bad - that we end up passing on to our descendants. When Annie looks through her mother's boxes, she finds a few books on spiritualism and the occult. She also finds a letter that her mother has left for her containing the ominous sentence, our sacrifice will pale next to the rewards. I wouldn't dream of revealing what that sacrifice turns out to be. Suffice to say that all four of the central characters are swiftly plunged into a waking nightmare so cruel and so vivid that it takes your breath away. Aster has some fun playing with genre conventions. There are strange noises, eerie lighting tricks, candle-lit seances and hair-raising dream sequences. Annie is befriended by a concerned older woman who - as played by Ann Dowd out of "The Handmaid's Tale" - is clearly bad news.
But "Hereditary" is no cheap exercise in jolts. The pacing is slow and deliberate - the surprises in no hurry to reveal themselves. As Annie and her loved ones moved through their personal stages of grief, you get the sense they are not just enacting the rituals of the bereaved but that they are being manipulated, like chess pieces, by forces beyond their comprehension. The cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski often frames the actors from a distance in long shots, reducing them to the scale of Annie's dolls. Those dioramas, which once served as a therapeutic outlet for Annie, become a striking metaphor for her family's entrapment.
But if the characters are shackled, the actors are fully liberated. Alex Wolff is heartbreaking as Peter, who is in some ways the story's most anguished victim. He's an unformed mass of guilt and resentment. And he internalizes each emotional blow as only an alienated teenager can. But the movie belongs to Toni Collette. This is her first major return to horror since her Oscar-nominated work in "The Sixth Sense" nearly 20 years ago. And it's been a long time coming. Collette plays Annie like an instrument going slowly out of tune, exposing more and more nerve endings in every scene. It's one of the most emotionally fine-grained performances I've seen this year - a mesmerizing reminder that the devil really is in the details.
DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. On tomorrow's show, actor Nick Offerman joins us, best known as Ron Swanson on the sitcom "Parks And Recreation." He stars in the new film "Hearts Beat Loud" as a single father who starts a band with his reluctant daughter before she heads to college. Hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEN ALLISON'S "GREEN AL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.