A24 has only been around since 2012, but in its six short years, the movie studio has delivered an impressive library of releases, including Oscar winners “Moonlight,” “Ex Machina” and “Amy.” The studio introduces small films in the summer to compete against the heavy blockbuster fare that take up 75 percent of the screens. Here are two titles now in theaters.
“Hereditary,” 4½ stars out of five.
The thing with horror movies is that in a sick, gruesome way, they are a form of escapism. What happens in them can’t possibly happen in real life. The plot, the mayhem and the monsters are scary enough to provoke emotion while still feeling distant from what’s unfolding on the screen. “Hereditary” is not one of those movies; you will need something else to escape from this.
Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro make up the Grahams, a family of four separately grieving the loss of its matriarch. The death is not the worst thing to happen to them, as strange happenings and more tragedies take over their lives. Annie (Collette) feels that her grief is a burden to the rest of the family, especially since it’s her mom who is dead, and her side of the family tree is full of mental instability. Charlie (Shapiro) is artistic but aloof, and Peter (Wolff) just wants to smoke weed, party and sleep. Steve (Byrne) is the rational one of the quartet.
Keeping in mind that “Hereditary” is from the same studio that released “The Witch” and “It Comes at Night,” this film is more about the horrible things families do onto themselves than the bad things they must eliminate. It also unfolds as a slow burn, with shocking moments dashed in and breadcrumbs leading the way from start to finish. No one talks to each other or want to stay in the same room for longer than five minutes. These hostilities are explained, only to create a new mystery at every turn. In the middle of all this is Annie, a diorama/dollhouse artist who illustrates her family secrets and her insecurities through her art. And the art is striking and unnerving, much like the visuals and rituals shown throughout.
What is fascinating about director/writer Ari Aster’s feature debut is that he has taken something that families don’t like to talk about – mental illness – and the dangers of not doing so. Aster creates a powder keg with the Grahams, and Collette is the solid, emotional center of all of it. This film will trick you many times, like having Byrne play against type and pulling a Janet Leigh on the audience. After watching this, see something safe like “Friday the 13th” or “Misery” to clear our your mind.
“First Reformed,” 4½ stars out of five.
This is a serious film. It’s so serious that Cedric the Entertainer is billed as Cedric Kyles. There is no light in a little white church in New York surrounded by snow. There is hardness where Amanda Seyfried’s smile and optimism can’t exist. There is coldness that turns Ethan Hawke into a melting iceberg. There is silence in a house of worship celebrating 250 years of faith that has lost its congregation years ago. Will God forgive us when there are so many questions without answers or when despair is everywhere?
The Rev. Toller (Hawke) is pastor of First Reformed Church, a quaint church rich in American history but lacking in believers. Having been there for three years, Toller is battling regret that as a military chaplain he encouraged his son to join the ranks only for his offspring to die while serving in Iraq. The church, known jokingly as a souvenir shop, is under the wing of a megachurch, Abundant Life, under the leadership of the Rev. Jeffers (Kyles). A pregnant congregant, Mary (Seyfried), asks Toller to counsel her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist with extremist views. What unfolds is an eruption that was under the surface but is about to bubble over.
Shown in a claustrophobic square, writer/director Paul Schrader presents a morality play that is bigger than the sum of its parts. Does preaching to a small crowd make you closer to God? Is your prosperity due to your strength in faith? Obstacles give Toller every excuse to abandon his religion, and in some ways he veers away from his self-imposed path of repentance to a cause that is not his. As the film starts, Toller begins a journal with the purpose of documenting his days for 12 months, not as an outlet to talk with God. But as days pass, it’s the site of precise handwriting and torn pages, much like how the past and future torment him.
“First Reformed” is not preachy nor does it make the viewer question religion or their personal faith level. Instead, it shows that any level – from the devout to the cynic – has its own strengths and flaws. This point is carried almost perfectly by its cast. Hawke is all things here – the hero, the sufferer, the lover and the villain. The audience is taken on a frustrating journey for Toller, and while a lesser actor or one of Schrader’s regulars may have taken the role over the top, Hawke stays with Toller. Kyles tones down his natural charisma and signature comedic chops as the megachurch pastor enough that Jeffers is still a human being and not a caricature. Seyfried reminds the audience that shine still lives on, despite the darkness and heaviness Schrader brings to this upstate New York town.