Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Toni Collette’s performance in Hereditary.
Back in 2019, I wrote an article called The Oscars Still Don’t Give a F*ck About Horror. The piece took a birds eye view of that year’s awards season to try and understand why horror films are always under-recognized in the industry’s top honors. While I focused on a small selection of movies I believed should’ve been contenders that year, my disappointment really only came from one place: the blind eye critic’s circles gave to Toni Collette’s stunning portrait of generational grief in Ari Aster’s Hereditary.
A part of my argument revolved around the concept of “Oscar Bait,” movies that seem almost tailor-made to reap all of the annual awards, from historical war epics to star-studded celebrity biopics. Often, though, by creating work intended to resonate with specific voters over general audiences, the films that receive honors seem as if they are following a safe, predetermined path to excellence. That’s not to besmirch all the wonderful films who’ve won those top awards before, but more challenging cinematic expressions — especially in genre films — are often shunned for movies that feel more in-line with what the Academy has historically honored.
As I mentioned in that piece:
“Glenn Close puts in a strong, if not altogether straightforward performance in ‘The Wife,’ which feels rote compared to the twisted ball of anxieties that Collette seethes in ‘Hereditary.’ For the critics who may find performances that bend into the grotesque irksome, it becomes easy to then discount horror for something that feels more like an “Oscar Film.”
While Toni Collette isn’t wearing a hockey mask or dripping with gore, her performance as Annie in Hereditary can be described as grotesque — and that’s far from being a bad thing. She effortlessly twists her face into surreal expressions, giving Annie a physicality and voice that seems almost monstrous. The dramatic risks she takes in-character, despite being very bold, are all grounded in Collette’s inherent naturalism and Annie’s given circumstances. The ease and commitment that Collette has in conveying Annie’s erratic bursts of bereaved emotion should have garnered her Academy recognition, but I find her erasure even more frustrating in the fact that her performance is incredibly entertaining, a rarity for a character with such a grueling arc.
A large part of why Collette is so connected to Annie is because she has crystal clear motivation. Annie is a grieving woman who just lost her mother after a long fight with dementia. Their relationship had always been contentious, especially after her schizophrenic brother suddenly committed suicide, leaving a note lodging the blame solely on their mom. The fissure between them caused Annie to shelter her children from their grandmother’s influence; only to relent once her daughter, Charlie (Millie Shapiro), was born. This leaves Annie feeling pulled apart by her family, which is only made worse by her daughter’s accidental death that she feels blamed for. These are all of the motivations that Collette uses to sketch out what makes Annie tick.
We first learn of these motivations early on in Hereditary at a grief recovery meeting. After lying to her family about going to see a movie, Annie drives to a local community center to attend a group therapy session. When the group leader asks if any new members would like a chance to tell their story, Annie sheepishly raises her hand, Collette’s face cringing as she does so. That cringe Collette gives the audience tells us everything we need to know about Annie’s state of emotions in the moment. She doesn’t want to share her rough family history, because saying the words aloud are almost too unbearable.
Anyone who has attended group therapy can attest that speaking your truth to a bunch of strangers has a way of making your experience suddenly feel all too real. Why else do you think the newly sober struggle to say “Hi, I’m an alcoholic” at their first AA meeting? Opening up about your trauma can be indescribably painful and distressing, which is why Collette’s Annie wraps her arms tightly in front of her during the scene. She’s conveying Annie’s subconscious mind through her external physicality, something she does frequently throughout Hereditary.
As she’s quietly coaxed to open up, Annie begins to tell the story of her life. But as she’s recounting memories that would chill even the most hardened of recovery groups, Collette doesn’t play this moment of exposition with overt dramatics. She tells the harrowing history of her family plainly, rattling off the highlights of her life as if she was recapping what she had for lunch that week. Her choices may appear simplistic, but they are incredibly intentional. Collette’s Annie wants to keep the gravity of her familial tragedies at a safe distance, and by having a cold detachment to the way she tells her story, she’s able to hide just how deep her wounds really go.
Collette allows her character to live in the rawness of this cathartic moment, but as the group session continues, and she digs deeper into her family history, the grip Annie has over her emotions starts to slip. She begins delivering each line as if she was discovering new revelations about her life for the very first time. Like a prelude to the extremes she goes to later in the film, Collette crests emotional hills and valleys as the scene concludes, expressing how powerless Annie feels being blamed for everything wrong with her family. When the group leader asks what she feels specifically blamed for, Collette’s Annie shakes her head, replying with a broken smile, “I don’t know.”
While Collette may play this early scene with muted simplicity, later in the film, as Annie’s emotions erupt after the death of her daughter, her performance splinters into vivid complexity. At a dining table scene, after being goaded by her son, Peter (Alex Wolff), to say what’s on her mind, Annie explodes just as her worst fears are confirmed. As much as she blames Peter for the death of her daughter, Peter displaces the blame back to her, reminding his mother that she forced him to take Charlie to the party that would ultimately lead to her death, saying, “I didn’t want to take her, and she didn’t want to go. So why was she there?”
But amidst this volatile blame-game of rage, Annie yells something at Peter that feels incongruous to the heightened drama of the scene, “All I do is worry and slave and defend you,” she screams, “and all I get back is that fucking face on your face!” It’s a patently funny line that fills the audience with unexpected laughter, but that covert joke wouldn’t have worked if Collette hadn’t been completely grounded in the given circumstances of the moment, delivering the line with all of the natural reaction of an enraged mom. To put it another way, it’s the perfect visualization of the acting adage “acting is reacting.”
This is also one of the first obvious glimpses at the underlying humor that exists at the core of Hereditary and of Toni Collette’s performance. You just don’t write a line like “that fucking face on your face” and not expect a laugh. Collette, though, resists going for the joke and simply allows her hyper-realistic reactions to the supernatural maelstrom swirling around Annie to surface the film’s humor. But it’s never so overt that it severs the emotional connection we have with Collette’s character. If anything, it helps us identify and relate to Annie even more. We may not be knee deep in a world of folk horror, but if we were, Annie’s reactions likely wouldn’t be that different from our own. And when we see a character react to a situation in a way that reminds us of ourselves, what else can we do but laugh at our own ridiculousness?
Without sounding like I’m denigrating Collette’s performance, I wouldn’t correct you for calling it ridiculous. But that’s just an adjective, not a slur. Similar to Isabelle Adjani in Possession, or even Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, Collette’s performance as Annie pushes against the outer edges of fully committed acting. So while she may seem untethered from reality, everything she does is grounded by her family’s trauma, making even the biggest acting choices come from a place motivated by the story.
For instance, after her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), spontaneously combusts, we see Annie silently scream before her jaw suddenly slacks and her face is awash in this gaunt, dead expression. The expression Collette gives Annie may appear affected, but it was intentionally meant to reflect Peter’s trauma as he became briefly possessed in an earlier classroom scene. As Peter’s arm is wrenched painfully above his head, we see a deadness in his eyes as invisible fingers seem to stretch his features into grueling expressions. That dead-behind-the-eyes gaze is then replicated in Annie’s face, effectively showing the audience the moment the lights in her mind go out, barreling us towards the shocking, decapitation-fueled finale.
Despite being overlooked for Hereditary, Toni Collette has been nominated for an Academy Award. Ironically, that was one of the rare instances a horror movie was honored at the Oscars: The Sixth Sense. Similar to Hereditary, M. Night Shyamalan’s film is about loss, grief, and ghosts but is also less shocking and explicit in its horror elements. This likely made it far more palatable to Academy voter’s tastes, which may be why they were quick to honor Collette in 2000, but not again almost 20 years later.
So why wasn’t Toni Collette nominated for an Academy Award for her riveting performance in Hereditary? There’s no easy answer other than this one hard pill to swallow: full-throated horror films will rarely be given the attention they deserve at Hollywood’s biggest night. And while I want to see the genre I love get the recognition it deserves, that will not mute the fact that horror films — from arthouse to grindhouse — have a way of outliving even the most beloved “Oscar Bait” movies.
And hey, if you’re listening, Academy Awards voters, whenever Toni Collette delivers a performance of this magnitude again, just give her that little golden statue. Who cares if it’s in a nerve-shattering fright film. We both know she deserves it.