I vividly remember one of the very first times I experienced Gone with the Wind. I was so totally enthralled, that at one point (I can’t recall where this was in the film), I literally flashed back into my own reality.
It was a beautiful moment where I realized just how engaged and entertained I had been. Within seconds, I left this realization behind and was happily wading back into the rich waters of this classic film, ready to follow the further exploits of Scarlett O’Hara and company.
There are also these so-called “flashes into reality” which I’ve never considered to be a good thing. It means that a film has stumbled or perhaps failed to keep my attention. If something is good enough, I’ll easily put aside thoughts of outside obligations, deadlines and life’s pesky minutiae.
But if those thoughts somehow come dribbling back into my mind – in the middle of any screening experience – then something in the film has failed.
I’ll expect some hate-mail for the problems I’ll outline, regarding the critical and audience darling Hereditary, which was released in theatres nationwide on Friday.
That’s not to say it doesn’t work on plenty of important levels – but that annoying (and telling) “flash into reality” – speaks volumes as to the film’s overall impact.
Following the death of the family’s maternal grandmother, it becomes obvious that there’s a strained relationship in the Graham household. Mother Annie (Toni Collette), father Steve (Gabriel Byrne), son Peter (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) clearly have a history of walking on eggshells with one another. As strange things begin to happen in their mountain home, and following a second family tragedy, Annie digs deeper into her mother’s past. In her overwhelming grief, she uncovers long- buried secrets. But what does it all mean, and where will these discoveries take Annie and her estranged family?
Let me immediately address the film’s most powerful asset… Performances.
On that subject, I can find absolutely nothing with which to take issue.
In fact, there are two performances so unbelievably stunning, that come awards-season next year, it would be a travesty to see these thespians unnamed in the nominees for such awards-show luminaries as The Golden Globes, The Independent Spirit Awards, and yes – The Academy Awards.
Toni Collette has been nominated for Oscar once before, for her supporting role in The Sixth Sense. With her jaw-dropping work in Hereditary, she should certainly get a nod for a lead performance.
She really gets under the skin of her character, and in turn, under the skin of the audience. I was reminded of the climactic scene in 1990’s The Grifters – and Anjelica Huston’s Oscar-nominated performance therein. It’s a remarkably similar scenario (for these particular scenes) which both actresses needed to tackle and the result is nothing less than primal. Both moments make you incredibly uncomfortable. And in such a scene and with such a performance – you’ll feel sympathy, pain and tension.
Collette nails every single moment as Annie. And part of the success, is not knowing if what Annie is seeing is real. Collette conveys the character’s constant self-doubt. Other than the “clicking” sound of young Charlie (an important motif), once the overall film itself has faded, Collette’s acting work will certainly be the film’s legacy.
Alex Wolff as older sibling Peter – has so many mind-blowing moments in his performance, that I was unable to name them all in the usual post-screening discussion with my husband. Clearly, I can’t make mention of most of them here, but a perfect example is his silent reaction to one of the film’s early, important moments which moves the plot forward. This guy needs some serious award attention.
And I silently clapped when I saw Ann Dowd (the best screen character actor working today) show up at the film’s mid-point. In my mind, she can do no wrong. But frankly, knowing Dowd’s strengths to tackle certain character-types – her presence might have been a slight tip of the hat – as to the film’s direction and the character’s motives. Just sayin’. You want Dowd ‘cause she can act the hell out of anything, but she also brings a bit of baggage (and her “type”) to any role.
I do want to throw out a quick “well done” to the casting of this familial unit. Physical similarities between father and son and mother and daughter – made falling into the life of this broken family such an easy task.
Hereditary borrows atmospherics (and even some similar music cues) from Kubrick’s The Shining, the paranoia and nightmare scenarios from Rosemary’s Baby (this screenplay feels like it could have been written by Ira Levin) and the slow burn tactics of The Witch.
As much as I love a good slow burn, however, I feel like Hereditary could have been truncated. While I enjoyed myself most of the way through, it seemed to drag at certain moments. And there were a few bits which never seemed to fully materialize once they were introduced (the mail-slot?). A trim here and a trim there, would have kept things moving.
I’m sure you’re jonesin’ to know if the film is scary. That’s what everyone’s been saying since the film premiered at Sundance earlier this year. There are a few almost transcendental moments of sheer terror – matched only by such bone-chilling scenes out of something like The Exorcist – which had me near tears in their power.
The funny thing, is that it wasn’t the “boo” moments or some of the well done placement of “something” out of focus in the camera frame. The most frightening things were some of the line deliveries. There’s a scene of Annie talking to Peter in his bedroom – and it was an absolute delight of a reaction from our audience – when Annie delivers a particular line as she stands over Peter’s bed. And the scene goes on from there to discover the absolute heights of fright. It’s easily the most powerful and upsetting sequence in the entire film.
I think that once you have a decent idea of where the film is headed – that this realization is where the film loses steam. And this is where the aforementioned “flash into reality” kicked in for me. I was 100% engaged and on board with this weird family. And again, some of the scenes are certain to be nightmare- fuel for the many nights ahead – but if you lose an audience member when they’ve been that invested (and terrified) in your characters and their bizarre situation – it means you (as the filmmaker) have done something wrong.
I wanted the mystery of the piece to continue. I didn’t want the wrap-up to be that easy – or frankly, that cliché. And once the revelations started to tumble in, my interest began to dwindle, with my mind offering up a “This is where it’s going? Okay, sure.”
And it pains me to say that – knowing how beautifully the film is shot and performed. Everything worked… until it didn’t.
So my verdict here? Unless you’re Gone with the Wind, any instance of a “flash into reality” is not a good thing.
But know that it’s not perfect. It’s not mind-blowing. And it’s only terrifying in select scenes. Despite the immense hype and the myriad of glowing accolades – it’s definitely good, but definitely not great.
The most telling thing for me and my ultimate feelings about the film as a whole? Once I complete this review, the film will quickly fall into a memory – neither particularly fond, nor particularly negative.
3 1⁄2 stars out of a possible 5.
Hereditary is now playing nationwide at a theatre near you.
Follow author Michael Klug’s work at www.notmymess.com