The world in miniature fills the home studio of Annie (Toni Collette), the horror genre’s latest mom to take on otherworldly forces for the sake of her children. Annie is an artist who re-creates scenes from her life in dollhouse-like dioramas with unsettling precision, her recent fixation being portrayals of her mother’s illness and death. The multiplication of domestic space in Annie’s craft intensifies the suffocating interiority that gives this spectral drama much of its eerie mood. Also disquieting is Milly Shapiro, the actor who plays Annie’s reticent daughter, Charlie, and whose face startles with the gravity of one who is 10 years old and 40 at the same time.
But mood is the key to Hereditary, because plot and character motivation fall flat after the first half hour or so. Each of the four leads — Collette and Shapiro are flanked by Alex Wolff as son/brother and Gabriel Byrne as husband/father — seems to have played their part with the other actors absent; Collette’s and the children’s individually strong performances never capture the intimacy of four people who have lived and loved one another as a family. Byrne, meanwhile, acts a role so bumbling and irrelevant that it’s hard to take his predictable attempts at gaslighting seriously. Hereditary’s conclusion comes as a relief after two hours that feel more like three, with the film’s strong start finally collapsing on itself with a laughably literal explication of the family’s haunting. It’s not that the movie is bad per se. It’s that it starts out aspiring to be good and ends aspiring to be bad enough to be good, but it doesn’t achieve either status.