'Hereditary' review: A disturbing family horror drama - Silver Screen Beat
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‘Hereditary’ review: Ari Aster’s horrifying feature debut will shake you to your very core

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Toni Collette Hereditary
A24

Writer-director Ari Aster’s feature debut Hereditary is a dark, deeply disturbing family drama intertwined with a gut-wrenching horror film that is, without a doubt, one of the most frightening movies audiences will ever have the pleasure of experiencing. Led by an awards-caliber performance by a distraught, unhinged Toni Collette, this nightmarish tale of family, loss, and grief is destined to continue to haunt its viewer, even long after they’ve left the theater.

“She was a very difficult woman,” Annie Graham (Collette) says at the funeral of Ellen, her 78-year-old mother who had been dealing with a number of mental illnesses in her final years. The only member of the family who appears to be taking the loss of the Ellen particularly hard is Annie’s daughter, Charlie (newcomer Milly Shapiro), while her first-born son Peter (Alex Wolff) and husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) seem like they could care less. Annie even asks her husband at one point after they arrive home from the funeral if she should be acting sadder than she really is, which is understandable considering the fact that she shared a very complicated, somewhat disastrous relationship with her mother.

In an effort to better cope with the loss of her mother, Annie decides to attend a bereavement support group, where she awkwardly discloses a number of disturbing details about her family history and traumatic childhood to a group of some very concerned-looking fellow attendees, including how her father starved himself to death and how her teenage brother hanged himself just years later. She even mentions how she feels alienated inside her own family. Little does Annie know, though, that a vital turning point in the film is about to lead her to her breaking point and the events that follow will uncover something even worse than just family woes—something malevolent that has already begun to manifest within the Graham family without their knowledge.

Aster, whose 2011 short film The Strange Thing About the Johnsons still makes me shudder with horror just at the thought of it to this day, introduces himself as a masterful horror maker with Hereditary. Aster’s dread-inducing script and well-orchestrated direction are flawless, and his crafty way of slowly building up tension and unleashing it like one big, fiery ball of horrific fury upon the viewer’s every emotion is nothing but pure brilliance. He’s a madman in the greatest sense.

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Not only is Hereditary an incredible achievement from a storytelling perspective, but a technical standpoint too. Pawel Pogorzelski’s stunning cinematography captures every detail so well, including one very key scare near the film’s climax, and his long, extended takes seem somewhat reminiscent of those in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror classic The Shining. Additionally, Colin Stetson’s eerie ensemble of woodwind and brass instruments provide a superb score that accompanies each image on the screen perfectly, while Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnston’s editing takes us from one scene to another with such remarkable efficiency.

As for the cast, Aster gives every performer a bit of room to shine, but it’s Collette and Wolff as the mother-son duo from hell that steals the show in Hereditary. Both characters come with a lot of bottled up emotional baggage and, over the course of the film’s final two acts, all of those emotions come pouring out one after the other. This is when Collette and Wolff are at their best, scaring the hell out of you and making you feel, well, probably a little sad and depressed. Byrne’s character does an exceptional job of trying to keep tensions in the household at ease, but even he begins to reach his breaking point as well, fearing for the well-being of his family.

Shapiro, perhaps known for her role as Matilda Wormwood in Matilda on Broadway, plays the strange, tongue-clicking Charlie in a way that no other young talent probably could. Her character’s very presence on the screen is unsettling, and the fact she spends much of her time holed up the family treehouse while creating creepy little totems made from household items and dead animal body parts is just straight up disturbing. “I want grandma,” she tells Annie in one scene right after the funeral, revealing the close-knit relationship she had with Ellen. “You know you were her favorite, right?” her mother responds.

By the time the Hereditary reaches the end of its wicked, shocking finale, it becomes clear to the viewer that what Aster has created here is destined to be hailed a new horror classic, much like it already has by critics who have been raving about it since the Sundance Film Festival and Southwest by Southwest earlier this year. It sticks with you, lingering, always, and its devilish intentions will, undoubtedly, have done their deed. Have fun sleeping after watching this one, kids. You’ll never look at that dark corner of your room the same ever again.

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‘Crazy Rich Asians’ review: Jon M. Chu’s delightful rom-com is a party with a first-rate guest list

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Crazy Rich Asians

As of the moment as an Instagram feed, Crazy Rich Asians revisits Jane Austen’s timeless universal truth about a man in possession of a fortune being in want of a wife. The man in question is Nick Young (Henry Golding), the exquisitely eligible scion of a Singapore real estate family. The scale of his fortune is suggested by the first scene, in which his mother, insulted by the manager of a fancy London hotel, buys it out from under him.

There’s no doubt in Nick’s mind about whom he wants to marry: Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an economics professor at N.Y.U. originally from Queens. She and Nick, who have been together for a year, are clearly a perfect match. At least in Manhattan. But when they travel back to Singapore for a wedding, Rachel finds herself subjected to the disapproving scrutiny of the older generation and vicious sniping from potential rivals.

Every romantic comedy depends on obstacles to the central couple’s ultimate happiness. “Crazy Rich Asians,” a busy, fizzy movie winnowed from Kevin Kwan’s sprawling, dishy novel, sets up a series of clashes — between tradition and individualism, between the heart’s desire and familial duty, between insane wealth and prudent upward mobility — that are resolved with more laughter than tears. There are squalls of intrigue and a melodramatic cloudburst or two, but nothing that threatens to spoil the festivities.

The venue is fabulous — if there is any part of Singapore that is less than dazzlingly picturesque, we don’t see it here — the music is great, and the food includes homemade dumplings, street-stall delicacies and lavish banquet dishes. But the key to this party is surely the guest list. It has been noted that this is the first Hollywood movie in a long time with a mostly Asian and Asian-American cast, and if anything this observation understates the diversity of the performers onscreen, in terms of both their origins and their pop-cultural affiliations. They include Michelle Yeoh, one of the great international movie stars of the past quarter-century; Ken Jeong, a staple of naughty American comedy for almost as long; and Awkwafina, a hip-hop artist, actress and web celebrity of more recent vintage.

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That’s only a small sampling. Mr. Kwan’s book, a best-seller that has spawned two sequels since it was published in 2013, runs to more than 500 pages and includes footnotes, genealogical charts and a telephone directory’s worth of names. Its digressions and tangents would easily fill up a television season or two, and the movie, directed by Jon M. Chu, can feel a bit rushed and cramped. There’s too much and also not enough.

Still, it’s hard not to have fun, though not always for poor Rachel. After a pleasant excursion with the soon-to-be newlyweds, Nick’s boyhood friend Colin (Chris Pang) and his fiancée, Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno), the family drama and the peripheral silliness kick into high gear. Rachel meets an ex-girlfriend of Nick’s, Amanda (Jing Lusi), who is less of an ally than she seems. More simpatico is Astrid (Gemma Chan), Nick’s ultraglamorous cousin, whose marital troubles provide the most developed secondary plot. Her husband, Michael (Pierre Png), is, like Rachel, an outsider; his insecurity about his wife’s money and status turns their marriage into a potential cautionary tale.

A more serious intimation of trouble arrives every time Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Ms. Yeoh), looks in Rachel’s direction. (His father is away on a business trip.) Her judgment seems severe and unfair, but she also possesses an undeniable grandeur, a seriousness about family, power and her own identity that is noble as well as cruel. While there is never any real doubt that “Crazy Rich Asians” will come down on the side of free choice and true love, it does pay lip service to the gravity and durability of other values.

Mostly, the movie is committed to the value of a good time. It is an unabashed celebration of luxury and money, with hints of class conflict that have more to do with aspiration than envy or anger, set in an Asia miraculously free of history or politics. Comic relief is provided by Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina), Rachel’s nutty friend, and her nutty parents (Mr. Jeong and Koh Chieng Mun), whose nouveau riche tackiness stands in contrast to the aristocratic hauteur of the Young family. Not everyone in that clan is as regal as Eleanor or as blandly agreeable as her son. There are a gaggle of funny aunties and a witty gay cousin (Nico Santos), who is no less amusing for being a rather tiresome stereotype.

You could also view that character as a self-conscious throwback — part of the film’s sly and appealing old-fashionedness. Without betraying any overt nostalgia, “Crazy Rich Asians” casts a fond eye backward as well as Eastward, conjuring a world defined by hierarchies and prescribed roles in a way that evokes classic novels and films. Its keenest romantic impulse has less to do with Nick and Rachel’s rather pedestrian love story than with the allure of endless luxury and dynastic authority. Which I guess is pretty modern after all.

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‘A Prayer Before Dawn’ review: Rising star Joe Cole leads this utterly ferocious Thai prison drama

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Joe Cole as Billy Moore in A24's A Prayer Before Dawn

If you wanted to know how it feels to be the only foreign inmate in a Bangkok prison, then A Prayer Before Dawn is about as close as you could get – without walking into a Thai police station with your pockets full of heroin.

As heroin addict and Thai boxer Billy Moore – upon whose memoir this film is based – Brit up-and-comer Joe Cole (‘Peaky Blinders’) is the audience’s suffering avatar. He’s hurled into the heat, the overcrowding, the ever-simmering threat of violence, all represented by real ex-convicts, many of whom are covered from head to toe in fearsome tattoos. Director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire has an unblinking documentarian’s eye, presenting extremity without sinking into exploitation. He films in long, painful takes, whether it’s Billy being pummelled in the ring, getting his next hit, or just trying to navigate his way along the serrated edge of Bangkok prison culture – a stranger in the strangest, deadliest of lands, who neither speaks the language or knows the customs.

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It is tough viewing, though not as tough as it must have been for Cole to recreate Billy’s delirious, drug-induced decline and eventual redemption. It is not merely an almost recklessly selfless performance, but also a surprisingly sensitive one, cracking Moore’s carapace to reveal the vulnerability beneath – of a lonely, unloved and desperately weak man whose only lifeline is the sport he loves. Light on dialogue and heavy on expression both physical and emotive, he keeps you watching even if what you’re seeing makes you want to hide your eyes and cower.

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‘BlackKkKlansman’ review: Spike Lee’s timely new film seizes the moment (and the American past)

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BlacKkKlansman
FOCUS FEATURES

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, which arrived in Cannes yesterday to a rapturous reception, is a tonal roller coaster, and therein lies much of its unique power. It’s alternatingly comic, heroic, tragic, horrifying, ridiculous, dead serious, clear-eyed, and confused; it shifts into moments of documentary and even essay film, but it’s also one of Lee’s more entertaining and vibrantly constructed works. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie exploit its tonal mismatches so voraciously and purposefully.

Based on a crazy true story (or, as an opening title puts it, “some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t”), BlacKkKlansman follows the efforts of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African American detective in the Colorado Springs police force who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the mid 1970s, passing as white over the phone, with fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) posing as Stallworth’s white avatar at actual Klan meetings. Lee seizes every opportunity in that startling setup to play with the notions of identity and belonging that have always fueled his work.

Before his Klan investigation, Ron’s first assignment is to go undercover at a Stokely Carmichael speech. (“They say he’s a damn good speaker, so we don’t want this Carmichael getting into the minds of the good Negroes of Colorado Springs,” his fellow officers tell him.) There, he meets and falls for local college activist leader Patrice (Laura Harrier), and even as he woos her, he tries and fails to stop her from using the word pig to describe cops. Ron remains loyal to the force, but he’s also moved by Patrice’s passion and righteousness. In some ways, the investigation of the Klan might be Ron’s attempts to reconcile this tension between his dedication to police work and his growing activism.

This awakening awareness of identity goes beyond just Ron: Flip repeatedly gets asked by Klan members if he’s a Jew. He later confides to Ron that, while he is Jewish, he wasn’t raised with any real religion or sense of difference. “I never thought about it before,” he says, but now, thanks to these constant accusations and hatred, “I’m thinking about it all the time.”

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Indeed, identity throughout BlacKkKlansman can be a disorienting, ever-shifting thing — acted upon by one’s allies as well as one’s enemies. The movie embraces this aesthetically as well. Lee adopts contrasting styles for each of the tribes that Ron moves through in the movie — the police, black activists, and the Klan. The Klan are usually shown as a bunch of bozos, a dangerous but also often hilariously incompetent collection of ignorant brutes and slack-jawed yokels. Meanwhile, Patrice and her fellow activists are often presented in essayistic, almost agitprop fashion: During Carmichael’s speech, in which he talks about white standards of beauty and the racially disturbing aspects of Tarzan movies, the edges of the frame go dark and we see his listeners in soft spotlights, highlighting their features; when Patrice and Ron argue over depictions of heroism in blaxploitation movies, the screen fills with movie posters and clips. (Among other things, BlacKkKlansman stands as an urgent essay on cinema’s depictions of blackness and racism over the decades.)

Later, Lee intercuts between a speech by Harry Belafonte about the 1916 lynching in Waco, Texas, of Jesse Washington and one delivered by KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace, giving another of his insincere, aw-shucks nice-guy performances, which in this context is both chilling and surreal). “Give us true white men,” Duke declares, while Belafonte goes through every agonizing detail of the horrors visited upon Washington’s body. It’s a terrifying juxtaposition, and watching it, I got the sense that Lee had laid a kind of brilliant trap for us with his earlier, satirical depiction of the Klan: Laugh all you want, he seems to say; you laughed at Trump, too, and look where that got us.

As you might expect, Trump and our current predicament hang heavily over this film, and the script (credited to Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, and Kevin Willmott, based on Ron Stallworth’s own book) goes out of its way to make the connections. At one point, Duke declares, “It’s time for America to show its…” — briefly struggling to find the right word — “greatness again.” That’s one of the subtler references, and while most movies about the past botch this sort of call-and-response with the present, Lee generally achieves this with panache; he’s rarely self-important about it. He knows he’s making obvious points, and he embraces it with a combination of exuberance and despair.

And within this heavy-handedness can lie a kind of ambiguity. Without giving too much away, I must report that some of the film’s close-to-final scenes have an almost utopian, wish-fulfilment quality to them, with bits that are sure to get roaring audience responses. But Lee then quickly cuts to images of such raw, disturbing power so that any momentary sense of triumph is sure to catch in our throats. BlacKkKlansman resists closure, reconciliation, or catharsis, and Lee has no interest in keeping this thing formally unified. What use is that kind of unity in a society that’s falling apart?

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