Much of the talk at this year’s Sundance Film Festival revolves, almost obsessively, around the idea that it’s a “weak” year. On the heels of an edition that gave us “The Big Sick,” “Call Me by Your Name,” “Get Out,” and “Mudbound,” the drop in cabin pressure is bound to be palpable. There is certainly nothing approaching an awards-contending breakout quartet like that this time around.
There is, however, a crater-leaving performance in the Midnight lineup that certainly deserves to be in the Oscar conversation, even if it comes in a brutal genre movie that’s unlikely to find traction with Academy voters for a variety of reasons. But then, a year after “Get Out,” what does that even mean anyway?
The performance is Toni Collette’s in newcomer Ari Aster’s bone-chilling “Hereditary,” and it is a staggering work conveying “torment of the most lived-in kind,” as Variety critic Owen Gleiberman put it in his review. As a mother swept up in a dark family history (which is…putting it lightly), the Oscar-nominated actress gives a powerhouse portrayal full of pain, terror, regret, compulsion — just a fireworks display of raw commitment.
Aster is no doubt on his knees in gratitude for a world-class performer adding this sort of rooted dimension to a film that has such a narrow margin of error. And that’s not to diminish his own part in drawing this out; Aster’s hand is assured and disciplined, making for a remarkable debut effort in its own right.
All of this is also not to give short shrift to the work of Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, and Ann Dowd (ubiquitous at the festival this year along with Andrea Riseborough and Lakeith Stanfield), all of whom play a huge part in conjuring Aster’s unnerving atmosphere.
The film itself is the kind of elevated genre piece that distributor A24 has excelled in nurturing, from Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room” to Trey Edward Shults’ “It Comes at Night.” But it’s also, of course, very much not the kind of thing that tickles the fancy of Oscar voters. But bollocks to that after a year that provided clear data indicating the motion picture Academy’s ongoing evolution. Nothing ought to be considered beyond the pale, and Collette’s work earns a place right beside Ellen Burstyn’s Oscar-nominated turn in “The Exorcist” as far as these things go.
So let’s just plant the flag early: This is a performance that demands a look, so don’t look away — though at moments the spirit may compel you otherwise.
Collette was previously recognized with a nomination for M. Night Shyamalan’s monster hit “The Sixth Sense.” She sealed the deal there with a few precious, masterful moments alongside Haley Joel Osment toward the end of the film as a lifetime of buried emotion bubbled over the cauldron’s lid. It was a scene that announced — for anyone who had not caught up with “Muriel’s Wedding,” anyway — the arrival of a massive talent. Her performance in “Hereditary” is that moment writ large, and it further makes the case for Collette as one of the contemporary masters of screen acting.
You have your assignment, Oscar voters. Watch this movie and absorb this performance. It is craft of the highest order. Don’t be scared.