In Her DNA: Toni Collette and the True Horror of “Hereditary”

    In many ways, an enthralling cinematic performance is like a sustained scream, its sound reverberating long after the screen has been abandoned. Silent or sorrowful, passionate or powerful, the actor pours the contents of their soul into their performance, as is the case with Toni Collette in Ari Aster’s horror hit Hereditary (2018). In the film, Collette plays Annie, the sandy-haired matriarch of the Graham family who is dealing with her fair share of demons. The Grahams are a seemingly cursed clan that experience a series of supernatural encounters, all of which suggest that they have inherited a sinister fate. By conveying the terrifying process of grief through her use of facial expressions and bodily movements, empathizing with her character to successfully inhabit her troubled mind, and perpetuating her fabled mythology, Toni Collette’s kamikaze performance in Hereditary helps to convey the deterministic outlook of the film by illustrating her lack of control over her situation. In so doing, she serves as the involuntary matriarchal glue to the film’s narrative thread.

    Collette uses her physicality to animate her underlying mental anguish, something that is best exemplified in a scene that seeps into the viewer’s psyche. Collette’s character creeps into her son’s bedroom like a disoriented demonic slug, her slithering pace steady and deliberate. As she approaches his bed, her face contorts into an expression of sheer terror as an army of bloodthirsty ants swarms on his face. The camera remains locked in on Collette in a medium close-up; even as she trembles, it remains completely motionless, the film never averting its gaze from that of its star. What follows is a chilling Munchian scream, completely devoid of any sound. Collette is conscious of the fact that those in her character’s life have chosen to turn their ears away, all of them rooted in the notion that she is losing her mind. Thus, her countenance perfectly captures that of the silent sufferer; trapped in the tree-lined suburbs of Utah, her scream does not make a sound. Her confusion causes her to distort her face in an almost grotesque way, presenting a portrait of a woman who is slowly losing control. Suddenly, she wakes from her sleepwalking spell, startling her slumbering son. “Why are you scared of me?” he asks earnestly, his voice splintering in pain. The camera cuts to another medium close-up of Collette, staring him dead in the face. “I never wanted to be your mother,” she blurts out callously, as if temporarily possessed by some infernal presence. She delivers the line like a brutal gag reflex, as if she is involuntarily confessing her darkest sin. Collette proceeds to use her bodily movements to convey her impotence, swiftly clasping her hand to her mouth in shock. The scene is electrically charged by Collette’s performance; for a film that rarely allows its audience to take a breath, it serves as a singular moment that sucks all the air out of the room. The episode concludes with Collette - drenched in saliva and sweat, tears spewing out of her eyes - taking in the true horror of what she has just said. Her physicality is what makes the scene so terrifying; although she notices the mounting evidence of evil at work, she is helpless to stop it, as indicated by the panic that pervades her bodily movements and facial expressions. All she can do is scream, albeit silently, hoping someone will hear. Ultimately, the physical aspects of Collette’s performance help to relay her lack of autonomy, both physically and mentally.

    By taking the time to understand the troubled psyche of her character, Collette delivers a multifaceted performance that demonstrates the complex inner workings of her mind. When speaking about her preparation for the role, Collette admitted that “[i]t was deeply draining,” going on to explain that she “really started hitting the gym” during the preproduction period (Donnelly, 2018). It is no wonder, then, that the film plays out like a marathon, with Collette’s ardor and anger radiating through the supercharged screen. In what is perhaps one of the most iconic moments in the film, a typical family dinner is turned on its head when Collette’s character, still reeling from the death of her daughter, vomits pure vitriol at her son. Collette is cognizant of the fact that she is playing a grieving mother, so she injects her performance with unbridled rage. As she bangs her fist on the table in a physical gesture of agony, the camera quickly cutting from a medium close-up to a medium shot of her fuming face, she delivers a stream of consciousness monologue that continues to surge in intensity as the scene progresses. With each audible voice crack and shrilly-delivered sentence, she portrays a woman who is slipping further and further away from lucidity due to the dearth of control in her world. In so doing, Collette illustrates the film’s primary theme of determinism, suggesting that, hard as one may kick and scream, it is impossible to have complete jurisdiction over one’s circumstances due to a myriad of factors, many of which are hereditary. Reflecting on the scene, Collette said, “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 amount of pain. When people are so consumed… it’s very difficult to see beyond yourself because you’re trying to survive” (Donnelly, 2018). Collette’s empathetic approach makes her character feel more multidimensional. She realizes that Annie is “living with… a huge amount of pain” due to the sudden loss of her youngest child, and reacts accordingly. Moreover, she embraces the idea of the grieving parent; no matter what they do, they do not possess the power to bring their child back. Collette channels this energy in her performance through explosions of fury and episodes of despair, revealing how grief can be all-consuming due to an absence of control.

    Collette’s mythology ultimately influences her part for the better, making the character of Annie more believable through her distinctive expressiveness and unique ability to disappear into whatever role she happens to be playing. Throughout her career, she has demonstrated a natural aptitude for playing “everywomen” who, over the course of their respective films, prove that they are anything but. Hereditary is no different, with Collette playing an emotional chameleon; her performance seamlessly transitions from brittle to broken to blood-curdling. Rather than depicting a nondescript maternal figure with a humdrum home life, she actively embraces all of Annie’s idiosyncrasies, however horrifying they may be. Collette has played several on-screen mothers, most notably in films like The Sixth Sense and Little Miss Sunshine. Both of her characters in the aforementioned productions have their sanity stretched thin, albeit in different ways. Although Hereditary is certainly similar in that regard, Collette embraces her preestablished persona to create an unpredictable experience for moviegoers, leaving them guessing the whole way through. Collette confessed that the film “...turns this kind of idyllic idealised myth of what it is to be a mother completely on its head. [Annie is] so real and multilayered. It’s so rare to play a woman that feels as complicated as she does” (Ellen, 2018). Annie’s complicated nature permits Collette to flex her acting muscles, portraying yet another character who feels as though she is losing control over her life due to a plethora of external factors. Rather than merely playing the part or representing the role, she completely becomes Annie, a woman who is rooted in Collette’s trademark expressiveness and unique ability to command the attention of the viewer through a single gesture or line of expertly-delivered dialogue. Collette conveys how such maternal figures are complex creatures; they do their best to protect their children from the barbarity of the world, but understand that they have little power over such things. The fear sets in as they reluctantly acknowledge the ugly truth: they cannot protect their children, let alone themselves, at all. Collette’s performance, elevated by a maternal mythology that has been carefully cultivated over time, ultimately redefines what a mother can be and reveals how even she is capable of losing control.

    Through her impressive physicality, empathetic approach to her character, and commitment to her acclaimed acting mythology, Toni Collette and her masterful performance in Hereditary perfectly capture the debilitating process that is grief. Collette conveys the deterministic stance that the film takes, suggesting that the Graham family never really had any control over their fate. Her performance is imbued with the DNA that she ultimately passes down to the film, its strands comprised of her former roles and fabled persona. By playing an incredibly complex maternal figure - a self-proclaimed strong suit of hers - Collette serves as the glue that holds Hereditary together, even as its central clan is torn apart. Like a perpetually resonating scream, her performance stays with the audience long after the credits roll, postulating that everyone has demons worth confronting in their family tree.

︎︎ Works Cited

Aster, Ari, director. Hereditary. A24, 2018.

Donnelly, M. (2018, June 18). Inside Toni Collette's Blazing, 'Deeply Draining' Performance In 'Hereditary'. Retrieved from 

Ellen, B. (2018, June 10). Toni Collette: 'I don't like horror films – I'm too petrified'. Retrieved from