Sundance London Film Festival 2018 Review: First Reformed

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Director: Paul Schrader

R | 1h 53min | Drama, Thriller | 13 July 2018 (UK)

Rating: ★★★★☆

Playing Sundance London 2018

Ethan Hawke cuts a looming, flinty-eyed and tormented figure as a disillusioned and possibly unstable upstate New York Reverend, in Paul Schrader’s austere but ultimately mesmerising character study. First Reformed, which refers to the name of a church in the film whilst obviously also lending itself to other interpretations, doesn’t attempt to hide its debt to Schrader’s acclaimed screenplays the likes of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Beyond being another study of another of ‘god’s lonely men’, of the narcissism of those who feel they are the only ones who can sense and purge the sickness running amok in the world, this film even mimics certain shots from Taxi Driver in ways anyone beyond vaguely familiar with that Scorsese/DeNiro milestone will recognise right away. Thanks to Hawke’s commanding soul-in-torment performance, striking cinematography and production design, and a different setting which allows for connections to more modern concerns about radicalisation, First Reformed ends up being a satisfying meditative echo rather than a simple replay of Schrader greats. I have heard also that there is much love for Bresson laced throughout the work, but I’ve not seen the film many are pointing to.

A grizzled and taut Ethan Hawke (who it is tempting to think was cast so we would cringe at how far young Jessie from Before Sunrise has come) plays the ominously-named Father Toller, a late 40s divorcee literally living out the meaning of his name in an upstate New York Dutch colonial-style church called First Reformed. Like DeNiro’s disturbed loner from Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle, Toller finds little to no sleep at night, and keeps a daily diary which we hear in voiceover. That voiceover, scattered with biblical references and unending lists of daily slights, reveals a man unable to follow the same homilies he dispenses to his much-reduced flock. “Wisdom,” Toller tells one young man who calls on him, “is holding two contradictory truths in our minds simultaneously.” Yet Toller, burning through a bottle of whiskey a night with a Pepto-Bismol chaser to conclude, is not able to perform the same mental gymnastics that we all do on a daily basis to get past such competing truths and carry on, such as accepting we are going to die yet knowing that that the law says that doesn’t give us license to act like we are unleashed from any responsibility. Or knowing that despite being given evidence of the dire state of the world and our own personal circumstances, it could also be true that things could get better tomorrow. We all, usually, find ways to compromise and carry on. But, bitter at the fact that the church he oversees attracts fewer and fewer followers, resentful of the timidity with which the pastor of the larger, corporate-backed church that owns First Reformed displays when he starts nudging towards speaking on political issues, and frustrated by the unyielding extremist positions that his young church group volunteers take, Toller is a man slowly twisting himself further and further inwards at the sense of his own uselessness. And people like that, both the movies and real life tell us, can explode outwards.

Schrader seems to take a perverse delight in taking us through the daily indignities that Toller perceives as his day-to-day fate. Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, also known as Cedric the Entertainer) over at the parent church Abundant Life, a modern megachurch par excellence, insults him when he chides Toller for not living in the real world. “You’re always in the garden, even Jesus got out of the garden”, he tries to joke with the stony-faced reverend. When dining in the cafeteria of Abundant Life, Toller is surrounded by wall-mounted quotes from the scriptures that, thanks to the garish design and bizarrely large fonts, end up looking like tacky corporate advertising. The industrialist who bankrolls Abundant Life is a total asshole promotes anti-climate change myths and who clearly wants no political involvement from the ministers. Visitors to the First Reformed, when it is open for weekend tours, seem more interested in getting the right size of tee in the gift shop than in the fact that it is due to celebrate its 250th anniversary. It seems Toller might be doomed to endure death by a thousand cuts for eternity, but an inciting incident fires something up inside him. Though unable to prevent the suicide of a local eco-activist (a convincing display of desperation from actor Philip Ettinger) who called on him in despair the week before, Toller seems to absorb wholesale his statistic-laden diatribes about corporate malfeasance and political corruption ensuring certain global doom. Here, it seems, is something he can grasp on to; an identifiable nexus point where a politically ignorant and corporate-dominated church is failing to rise to a basic challenge: “will God forgive us for what we do?”

However, even as Hawke’s character starts down a disturbing path in order to shake the church and the wider world awake, one that engages fully with the modern reality of how the internet can provide all the material a budding extremist needs to affirm their beliefs (austere figure he may be, but Toller maintains a nifty laptop and solid broadband), Schrader keeps his motives interestingly ambiguous. For a man of the cloth, Toller seems to be growing worryingly close to the activist’s widow (Amanda Seyfreid, good, but underused). Is it worth pointing out that the widow is with child and that her name is Mary, too? Is it a sexual attraction? Then there is the fact that this man is booze-addled much of the time, and his stubborn refusal to heed Jeffers’s advice to get his deteriorating health checked out raises the possibility of a refusal to face a wasting illness. His son is revealed to have died in the second Iraq War also; a pointless death in an unjust war. All of these nuggets of backstory and behaviour challenge the purity of his new-found environmental drive, in much the same way many have theorised that Travis Bickle’s ‘manifesto’ and onscreen actions in Taxi Driver could in fact be a delusion linked to PTSD resulting from his Vietnam War service (assuming, of course, that he did serve as he declared).

Though it eventually arrives at a place of what I can only call transcendental madness, Schrader’s film mostly betrays a suitably severe aesthetic. The film is shot in an ‘older’ 4:3 Academy ratio, which makes everything looked hemmed in and tense. The First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, upstate New York is a stern, looming 18th-century box of white wood with a steeple raised to a heaven offering no answers. Toller’s room inside has little furniture, and looks hardly changed from decades ago. The effect is to make the Reverend look like he’d be more at home in the actual time period the church was built, free of the compromises a global economy demands.  The world outside offers no cheer, being one of permanently grey skies and spidery trees. Schrader’s film, unless you interpret the loopy ending in a very positive way, offers no cheer or clear answers either, being both a savage takedown of modern Catholicism whilst also suggesting it might have a role to play, a critique of environmental pollution but a warning against extremist activism too. But what is does offer is plenty of food for thought, and one of Ethan Hawke’s best performances.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Sundance London Film Festival 2018 Review: Never Goin’ Back

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Director: Augustine Frizzell

R | 1h 25min | Drama | 3 August 2018 (USA, UK date TBC)

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Playing Sundance London 2018

Buzzed BFFs are the order of the day in writer/director Augustine Frizzell’s scrappy, uneven, but ultimately winning debut feature. It is a film that is sustained by the irresistible, irrepressible duo at its heart, and by the appeal of seeing the typical stoner bro movie repurposed for the female perspective. Females who are determined to not give an inch, shamelessly thrown various narcotics down their throats or up their noses, take enemies off at the knees with volleys of profanity, and remain sweetly committed to each other throughout.

Once their alarm clock blazes one muggy morning, things start going wrong pretty quickly for BFFs Angela (Maia Mitchell) and Jessie (Cami Morrone).  These two late-teen high school dropouts, so breadline they have to share a bed in Jessie’s intellectually-challenged jock brother’s scabby suburban Dallas apartment, finally seem to have a chance to catch a break from their dead-end waitressing jobs in the same crappy diner. With childish glee, Angela drops the surprise on a sleepy and disbelieving Jessie that their dream vacation to sunny Galveston, Texas, is ON. In fact, it is only a few shifts away. Angela has booked them a beach cabin, and got a great discount online. The catch? She used up their rent money to pay for it, trusting their bosses’ word that enough shifts will be there to beforehand cover the advance payment. Right away, alarm bells are ringing in our heads. When a movie character assumes money will be there, chances are fate is going to take a different view. Angela and Jessie have a believable argument about how irresponsible this is, but actress Maia Mitchell really invests Jessie with so much charm you can imagine wilting under her enthusiasm. Cami Morrone’s character comes off in the first act as the slightly more responsible of the two (Jessie is really not convinced this beach idea is a good one, but gives in), but Frizzell’s script never simplifies this relationship to an enabler/manipulated dynamic even as a shopping list of darkly funny, twisted disasters spin out of this one decision by Angela to cut loose.

And boy do things go wrong. Jessie probably should have guessed that that business venture her brother Brandon (Kyle Mooney) was babbling about was, in fact, an attempt to set up a drug deal. The deal resulted in a hold-up, which meant Brandon’s own share of the rent has gone bye-bye. Then their apartment gets invaded in a hilariously chaotic scene by one of Brandon’s own dimwitted ‘crew’ who wants his share of the fronted cash back, which results in cops searching the place, only to find Jessie and Angela’s somewhat substantial supply of the good stuff strewn all over their room—and they have to serve a short stint in juvenile detention. With two days worth of shifts at work due to be missed, their beach trip is in serious jeopardy and they’ll have to use every bit of guile to make the rent money back. A ‘get the cash in 24 hours’ plot is now seriously underway, but what makes Jessie and Angela’s mini-adventure so alternately funny and actually quite tense is the fact that their plans run parallel with them getting continuously buzzed, which doesn’t result in quite the mindset you need to make some money quickly…and legally. You keep wondering which of them is going to accept that casual party invite, drop a tab of something they shouldn’t, or lose their temper at just the moment things are looking up so everything goes to hell just when a path to salvation was about to open up. Jessie and Angela are their own worst enemies, but their affection for each other and their sugary/savage take on the world makes them kind of hard to dislike even as they walk towards every landmine in their path.

Frizzell’s film isn’t perfect by any means. You can see more than a few of the car crashes Jessie and Angela get into coming from way off, with some gags being set up way in advance and then playing out exactly as you might expect (one involving the downside of keeping your stools …upside for too long). Some of the characters, particularly those in Brandon’s posse, are fairly standard doofuses who act as you’d expect. Frizzell’s script and the production design show a keen eye for the realities of living one pay check away from disaster in a state and country without a great social security or minimum wage safety net, and this might seem to rub awkwardly against the increasingly zany plot developments as the film goes on, but I actually found this not to be a problem given this story is being told from the perspectives of two women who are stoned to hell by various drugs much of the time and who are sustained both by their own relationship and their DGAF attitude. I personally can’t wait to see what Frizeell and co-stars Mitchell and Morrone do next.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Sundance London Fim Festival 2018 Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

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Director:  Desiree Akhavan

15 | 1h 30min | Drama, Romance | 31 August 2018 (UK)

Rating: ★★★★☆

Playing  Sundance London 2018

Writer/director Desiree Akhavan, who’s Appropriate Behavior I fell hard for back in 2014, returns to  treat the grim and morally toxic subject of gay conversation therapy centres with a refreshing and winning lightness of touch, deep empathy for all the characters, and a deliciously dark sense of irony. Akhavan and co-writer Cecilia Frugiuele are here adapting Emily Danforth’s acclaimed eponymous coming-of-age novel, which I’ve never read, so I don’t know to the extent to which the tone has simply been transposed over. But I was won over by the whole approach of this confident sophomore feature pretty early on, from the witty, frank but also very tender script to the great casting and performances.

Chloë Grace Moretz plays the titular Cameron Post, Moretz being a good casting choice if you want to present a picture postcard of the blonde, pretty, all-around perfect high school girl, and her performance is the most nuanced I’ve seen from her. Teen Cameron is in trouble right from the get-go. It is 1993 and Cameron, whose family are deeply religious, has been caught in the middle of heavy foreplay with another girl from the neighbourhood in the back seat of a car on prom night. In short order, we see Cameron quickly shipped off to a conversion therapy center that treats teens struggling with “SSA”, AKA same-sex attraction, just one of the many peppy acronyms and mantras the centre likes to soothe its ‘visitors’ with. 

Right away we are invited to cringe at the violations of privacy and the morally twisted ideology that underpin this entire concept, as well as the endless banalities. In the dorm room, as the centre’s deputy Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.) rummages through her backpack and confiscates her Breeders cassette, Cameron has to sign a ‘commitment’ paper; a veneer of voluntariness to give cover to this absurd endeavour. Of course, there is a gargantuan, hilarious irony underpinning (and undermining) the entire concept of the camp: putting a bunch of hormone-addled teens together means they have a ready-made gay community within spitting distance. Here, gay sex can happen probably much more easily than in the outside world. None of the adults running the place seem to realise this. Or maybe they do, but need to keep a smile on their faces to sell the message that persistence and abstinence will get you to the higher ground.

And yet, even as we unite with Cameron (as well as laugh heartily) as she chafes against the outlandish discipline, recoils from the dubious ‘de-gaying’ methods, and stares mouth agape at the super-earnest Christian rock concerts the centre takes its inmates to, we aren’t steered towards seeing the camp staff or the other youths who have internalised the self-hate as clear antagonists. In fact, this community is a place where Cameron can finally find peers in roughly the same boat as her, and having authority figures to rally against doesn’t hurt when it comes to bonding. The Miseducation of Cameron Post actually starts hitting some of the same affirming, uplifting notes a straight ‘summer camp’ movie might. Clearly a bit lost due to her own burgeoning sexuality and the weird situation she has fallen into, Cameron teams up with the kids who know how to bend the rules: Adam (Forrest Goodluck), and a girl who goes by the name ‘Jane Fonda’ (Sasha Lane, who fulfils the promise she showed in 2015s American Honey here with a charmingly brash performance). They’re the ones who sneak off to smoke pot on the woodland hikes, which are one of the few activities where males and females can head off together as it is a ‘gender neutral’ activity that won’t risk triggering any gayness. Jane hides her pot in her wooden prosthetic leg, just one of the many tricks she’s learned to keep screwing the system over, even if she sees outright escape (which would actually be pretty easy) as pointless as she will just end up back here again, same as all of them. They are teens, they have no resources. 

Cameron’s perky roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs), a football fanatic and also extremely devoted to finding Christian salvation even as she clearly shows sexual attraction towards Cameron, could easily have been the focus of either gags or contempt in a different movie. But she gets treated with equal compassion. I found her arc frankly heartbreaking, though the film’s final act reveals a even more sorrowful fate for one of the other, more troubled teens, which brings the cost of this ‘therapy’ into a necessary, clearer focus. Even the adult staff aren’t treated as villains. Jennifer Ehle’s Dr. Marsh might have the shine of a true believer in her eyes, but her deputy Reverend Rick (who’s story about how he was ‘saved’ by two men who followed him into a gay bar leads to plenty of derisive snorting from Jane, Adam and Cameron given what probably in fact went down that night in addition to the ‘salvation’) betrays flashes of uncertainty to Cameron in private about what he is really trying to achieve here, as well his deep upset at the personal cost. None of the staff are outwardly cruel even if their interpretation of their beliefs is, they are just persistent and annoyingly upbeat, with rebellion met with an arm around the shoulder or a pleasant-sounding homily. You could argue though that this approach is even more insidious; winning a teen over by making them think their pastoral care is what is really the focus here, instead of pushing them to loathe or deny their way out of being gay.

Akhavan has said that she had no queer John Hughes movies when she grew up, and that’s a great sentiment to keep in mind when watching this film, even if I don’t think the comparisons are entirely apt. We are not blessed with a huge amount of quality gay teen films that are tender, witty, explicit and complex. Thanks to Akhavan, that number has increased.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Sundance London Film Festival 2018 Review: Leave No Trace

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Director: Debra Granik

PG | 1h 49min | Drama | 29 June 2018 (UK)

Rating: ★★★★☆

Playing Sundance London 2018

Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik returns to feature films with another look at American outsiders operating either on the fringes or outside the modern, interconnected world. Leave No Trace is, like Bone, a small-scale, atmospheric character-driven piece with a young woman at the centre that explores issues like family bonds, parental responsibility, and the challenges faced in a life with minimal resources. It features strong performances from lead Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie as a father-daughter pair - Will and Tom - who are living off the grid in a vast nature reserve on the edge of Portland, Oregon. 

We are introduced to the pair in the middle of what must be one of any number of typical daily routines getting their tent camp ready for sunup: pack the tools away into a hidden crevice, check the water supply that has gathered overnight, start cooking breakfast without resorting to the limited propane supplies. We are told nothing about the pair as there is no onscreen text or narration, so we are inlined to lean in to guess how they ended up here and what Will’s deal is. Will is a quiet, calm presence, but his intensity and insistence on teaching Tom escape and evade techniques seems a little odd. He also is very interrogative towards Tom whenever she reveals she came close to the presence of any outsider, or reveals a slip-up in their routine. The expectation is that when the outer world, which Will seems to keen to avoid, finally intrudes, we will learn more about what made this man want to live like this. Granik’s film, which she co-wrote with Anne Rosellini adapting from the novel by Peter Rock, delivers on that expectation, but instead of delivering some screen-filling emotional fireworks, turning into an escape drama, or devolving into a straight-up celebration of the nomadic lifestyle, instead chooses as much to sympathetically and quietly interrogate Will as a father as it does to explore how someone could find modern American life unbearable. How does a person fall between the cracks?

One thing I particularly enjoyed about the film was that it balances its study of Will with an exploration of Tom’s coming of age, whilst never making Will’s decision to drop out morally clear-cut, even as it shows how difficult it is in the modern world to live without the accoutrements that a ‘connected’ person picks up. Bureaucracy and technology have a way of sticking to a person like flypaper. Thus when a chance encounter with a jogger blows their cover, and authorities alerted to the presence of illegal camping in the park take Will and Tom to first the police, and later social services, Will quickly finds the paperwork, web-ready devices, and various legal requirements stacking up. Clearly these were things he wanted to avoid. But it is also noticeable that the law enforcement and social service works Will and Tom meet are never cruel, even if they are inquisitive and have a battery of psych test questions that want to ask Will, hundreds in fact. The look on Foster’s face as he faces a blandly-voiced computer for the testing tells it all; this is not a man who likes to look inside his own head. And the reason for that soon becomes clear, as it is revealed Will is a special forces veteran, presumably from Afghanistan or Iraq. A kindly female social service officer who quizzes Tom also has a pertinent question to further complicate Will’s choice to flee human contact: is it fair on his teen daughter, who has been denied socialisation? Though she notes Tom is above the expected level on reading and maths, she points out to the anxious girl that schooling isn’t just about being able to write, add and gut fish. 

The revelation about Will’s past not only raises the issue of his almost certainly suffering from PTSD, but connects the film to the current ongoing controversy over not only the US involvement in recent morally questionable and very lengthy wars, but the failures of the notoriously incompetent Veterans Affairs bureau. Armed forces dropouts are a shamefully common phenomenon in the US, and Will is not the only one to appear in the film. Pointedly, a trip to a VA station by the pair to try to shift some medication that Will finds useless sees Tom get a sales talk from a vet stall manager which includes a pitch for a suicide prevention clamp for a rifle. A chilling thought. Yet the film, whilst presenting Will sympathetically in this way (and Foster’s character doesn’t present in what you night consider a typical ‘wreck’ fashion, with no shouting or screaming or violence), never loses sight of the warning that the social services officer gave to Tom: that girls deserve the choice of an education that is about more than just survival skills. 

This clearly resonates with Tom, and the fraying of her relationship with her Dad after this interruption of the ‘real world’ is well-drawn and believable, whether it is Tom clearly being drawn to boys her age after she starts to encounter them in one of the care homes they are placed in, or awakening to how the truisms her Dad drops on her (‘those were never our things’ Will declares about one of the rest homes social services put them in) are in fact based on his decisions, not hers. Some of the decisions Will makes eventually become physically exhausting for the young girl, and even life threatening. Tom is old enough to reason that even if the modern world had its banalities and pressures, and plenty of moral compromises, it has things like advanced healthcare. Even if the path this sets these characters on, where each has to choose where they draw the line at what independence is enough, is perhaps predictable, it is very well-handled.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Sundance London Film Festival 2018 Review: Hereditary

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Director: Ari Aster

15 | 2h 7min | Drama, Horror, Mystery | 15 June 2018 (UK)

Rating: ★★★★☆

Playing  Sundance London 2018

Star Toni Collette is superb in director Ari Aster’s Sundance horror sensation Hereditary. The film burst out of the US festival earlier this year with the kind of favourable buzz that eased the way for The Babadook and Get Out. Comparisons to The Babadook are particularly understandable given both films centre on an unstable female protagonist who is an unreliable narrator (as well as parent), but the comparisons can be overdone. I personally found Aster’s film incredibly unsettling, one of the closest approximations to the kind of nightmares I've had that I have seen on film recently. The night terrors that have lurked in my memory are those where I wasn’t sure where the real world ended and the supernatural took over, and where waking up resulted in a flash-moment where dreamscape and the real world overlapped. Watching Hereditary recalled that to a certain extent. Those going into Hereditary should be warned that not only is this flick not entirely similar to The Babadook but the marketing materials for the film - particularly the posters that feature a miniature house lit spookily from within - might create the wrong kind of expectations. Nor is it really helpful to call this ‘the next Exorcist’. Rest assured though, despite a two-hour run time that suggests a slow-burner, the film will make you jump. You will never think about tongue clicks in the same way.

What about those weird miniature houses though? Well, they are naturally a handy metaphor for how we can be shrunk down to irrelevant size by the loss of control, and the vulnerability of a family unit to menacing forces peering in from outside.  Aster actually opens the film with a striking zoom onto what appears to be a miniature of a bedroom, only for the entrance of a character into the room to break the spell and reveal this is a real place. But the miniatures are also fascinating, real objects within the film; the life work of Toni Collette’s character. Collette plays Annie Graham, an American artist who is famed for creating miniaturist houses, which mostly are based on scenes from her own life; tiny lit rooms with Lilliputian human figures, fixtures and fittings all fabricated with a frankly eerie level of detail and care (there is a real-life American artist Narcissa Thorne who’s work is similar, and she may be an inspiration). It is, of course, tempting to read into this a form of deep-rooted control freakery or some kind of pathology (or curse?), and given that when we first see Annie when she is giving a very bleak reading at her mother’s funeral, we also start to sense that the Grahams might be a family with deep roots of damage. Annie’s mother, we learn, was elderly, secretive and abusive, and only died after years of dementia. Right away, we wonder how this mysterious matriarch affected not just Annie, but her steady-the-ship husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and their teen children Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). As Annie hisses through her teeth during the funeral, her grandma insisted on taking Charlie under her wing, and even though she is dead, she fear her ‘hooks’ are still in her child.

It is difficult to talk about what happens over the next two hours without spoiling, but suffice it to say that Aster crafts the downfall of the Graham family, and reveals the shadow they live under, with real craftsmanship. It really starts with loner teenage granddaughter Charlie (a great performance from Milly Shapiro, who has fascinating gaze that really conveys the sense of seeing something beyond), who starts catching visions of her grandmother outside her school, before graduating on to dissecting animals and unsettling her family with strange, sudden tongue clicks. Then a truly gruesome and bizarre tragedy strikes, and the domestic turmoil this unleashed is so effectively conveyed by the cast, particularly Collette, that Hereditary could actually have just stopped right there with the supernatural elements and carried on as a great character study of grief. One dinner scene, conducted in the family’s gloomily-lit and oddly doll-like house (the rooms just feel too neat to seem lived in), sees Collette’s character escalate to such a frightening level of savage accusation that the film reaches an almost hysterical pitch of unease. This happens many other times, with Annie’s uncontrollable outbursts against her hapless son Peter (Alex Wolff really nails the look of a person exhausted by the process of falling apart), who was involved in the aforementioned tragedy and thus has twisted the family’s response to it even more, revealing such deeply-buried and unspeakable truths that you night find yourself emitting a guffaw of shock. This grounding really helps the film, as few things are more terrifying that seeing bad things happen to believably frail people.

But it is not over for the Grahams, not by a long shot. Aster’s script, the production design, editing and a precise nerve-jangling score from Colin Stetson all work in slick tandem to ratchet up the feeling of delirious dread as the family members increasingly isolate themselves, and thus fall further prey to the forces trying to get at them. I particularly liked the film’s trick of snapping from day or night in exterior shots in a single beat, like switching the lights in a doll’s house on or off with a switch. Grace Yun’s production design and Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography for the outdoor scenes make the Graham residence look like another miniature house in a totally isolated space, cut off from any help, which is complimented by the aforementioned square-on compositions that make the interiors look uncannily like replicas with live occupants. Interspersed with all this are a few jump scares so well-constructed that it overrides the fact some are straight out of the oldest playbook in existence. By the time you get to the WTF ending (which, despite my ambiguous feelings about it, doesn’t diminish my appreciation), you will probably be wanting to steer clear of doll’s houses for a good few months.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.