You’ve read the reviews, scrolled Twitter for spoilers, watched the box office net a personal best for distributor A24 — but two weeks after terrorizing North America, the takeaway of “Hereditary’ is still Toni Collette’s blazing lead performance.
As a repressed and often unlikable woman paralyzed by grief, Collette grounds writer-director Ari Aster’s debut genre film in the world of a masterful indie film before giving way to abject horror.
“I wanted to do comedies,” said Collette, a career-long veteran of microbudget drama and festival darlings, during a recent chat with TheWrap from New York.
“But when I read this, I had this feeling of, ‘Oh f—. I’m gonna have to do this.’ It was an undeniable compulsion. It was like I had no choice in the matter,” she said.
Now nearing $28 million in wide release, “Hereditary” was a Sundance entry that looked like a moody character study about a family mitigating death. Despite a fluke D+ Cinemascore from first-run moviegoers, it has defied expectations to become a dreadful masterpiece.
“I found it so amazing that it was seamless — none of the horror feels gratuitous. I’m not a fan of horror films, and I probably wouldn’t have done it if it had been gratuitous. It’s really based in something so pure and those horrific elements are an extension of something so natural and that really blew me away,” Collette said.
The actress plays Annie, a sculptress who makes sterile recreations of scenes from her life in miniature form. Before we see a single frame in Aster’s film, we read the newspaper obituary for her mother. It’s an obvious signal that we’re meeting a woman in distress, but also some clever misdirection. That obit will wind up the least of her problems as violent grief and dark paranormal forces are about to crash down on her.
“She’s really attempting a hero’s journey and tackling what’s wrong, but in the waking hours she’s so repressed. Her career is based on exploring her own life, she makes those intricate miniatures of her very own existence. I think its a way to control something that feels overwhelming and a way to explore why she’s had this ongoing feeling of ominous dread her entire life,” Collette said.
Annie’s nuclear family consists of husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), eldest son Peter (Alex Wolff) and troubled daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). They tiptoe around her vacillating moods and Annie’s overall inherited trauma from her dead mother — a controlling, secretive and oppressive force. Only a few scenes after setting the table, another unspeakable loss hits her and hell quite literally breaks loose.
[Warning: Spoilers ahead from “Hereditary”]
A terrible car accident decapitates young Charlie while under her brother’s care as the pair leave a high school party. In total shock, Peter drives the family car home with Charlie’s body (minus her head) still inside, which Annie discovers the next morning.
The discovery scene plays out exclusively across Peter’s face, as we hear Annie leave the house to run an errand and piece together what has happened. The sound of her wailing is heard over Peter’s blank expression, which kicks off a grief montage so unsettling that the viewer never quite recovers. “Hereditary” becomes a different movie, as Annie starts to see mounting evidence of evil at work (though she never quite has the audience’s trust until the film’s final moments).
“I love the ambiguity of not quite knowing where she’s at, of not knowing whether she is really losing it — because she does have a history of psychotic episodes and she’s experienced some very dark times — or, if she’s finding the truth,” Collette said.
Even as the film succumbs to its true genre, Collette and Aster stay committed to the family drama. It’s a noble creative decision, and one that was criticized by Hollywood when the writer-director first circulated his script. Producers and studios did not want an unhappy family, Aster previously told TheWrap.
The “cynical” conventions of the genre say you need a squeaky clean tribe to terrorize, Aster said. “Hereditary” plays more like “Ordinary People” for most of its two-hour runtime before the big bad shows up.
Annie’s internalized rage and victimhood are emboldened by the loss of her daughter. She passive-aggressively taunts her husband in his weary attempts to nurse her grief. She admits her regrets about motherhood to her son — which, poor Alex Wolff, has to take in stride as he blames himself for the death of his sister.
This culminates in an incredible dinner scene where Annie confronts her son, furious that Charlie’s death hasn’t even brought the family closer. And, yes, she says, it is his fault.
“Even though it’s extreme, most people can feel how familiar that is on some level. I think at that point my character may seem despicable, but she’s living with such a huge mount of pain. When people are so consumed … it’s very difficult to see beyond yourself because you’re trying to survive. There is a very real and very large amount of rage within her. He just pushed the button and the wrong moment,” Collette said.
“But I do like that she’s very unlikable at times. She’s a really complicated woman. The ground is shifting in her world,” she said.
The only silver lining to a character like Annie was the self-preservation measures Collette took to survive her.
“It was deeply draining. I think that is when I really started hitting the gym. It’s the first time in my life, I just knew that I had to literally move energy out of my body. This is the film where I learned how to take care of myself as an actor. In the past I would just fling myself in with no concern for my health,” she said.
Still, she sees the part as “such a delicious challenge and such a great opportunity. It’s very rare for me, but in my career I’ve always sought out and found characters that feel somewhat real and reflect what it is to be human.”