Written by: Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz
Directed by: Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz, Sergio Casci,
Starring: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, and Lia McHugh
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
You're not welcome here.
Nothing is quite what it seems in The Lodge, the latest disturbing effort from Goodnight Mommy filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. Not only has the duo crafted a shifty, clever puzzle box alongside co-writer Sergio Casci, but they’ve also wrapped it up in a deceptive crucible of existential terror whose style belies the playfulness at work here. The grim, slow-burn aesthetics of The Lodge conjure up recent memories of similarly moody, deliberately paced ruminations on grief and despair that also happen to be scary as hell. You know, the kind of stuff some people are calling “elevated horror” or “post-horror” because they can’t deign to admit they admire a genre movie. God forbid, right? If I didn’t know any better, I’d say these kind of folks are the exact marks for The Lodge, a film that postures with this “elevated” style as it deviously hides a bleak but crafty little story behind its back.
The specter of grief veils the weirdly playful film to come. Laura (Alicia Silverstone) struggles to reckon with her separation from husband Richard (Richard Armitage), an investigative journalist who falls in love with Grace Marshall (Riley Keough), the subject of his research into a ritual cult suicide. When Richard informs Laura that he wants to make the divorce official, she commits suicide in her kitchen, leaving behind two traumatized children, Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh). Six months later, Richard—mistaking assuming that time has healed some wounds—dares to broach the topic of the kids spending time with their future stepmothe. Resuming the yearly tradition they once shared with their mother, the family embarks to a remote lodge for Christmas, where the idyllic holiday goes haywire. Richard is called away to work, effectively stranding Grace with two resentful children who blame her for their mother’s death. Making matters worse: strange phenomena that begins to unlock trauma from Grace’s childhood, when she watched her charlatan father murder dozens of people to bring them closer to God.
You think you know what you’re in for here early on. With its slow, portentous establishing shots, meticulous framing, whisper-quiet tenor, mannered performances, repeated scenes of a dog barking at nothing in particular, and recurring images of a doll house you might suspect doubles as a capital S Symbol, it’s easy to assume The Lodge is yet another ponderous mediation on the intersection of grief, horror, and the existential fate of our souls. I have to admit it had me for a good while, if not most of its running time. An early scene where Mia wails in anguish about her mother’s soul being trapped in purgatory as punishment for suicide is one of the most genuinely upsetting moments I’ve witnessed in recent memory. I was absolutely convinced that The Lodge might be a classic example of a well-crafted, horrific bummer that I would never want to watch again because it’s just too bleak.
Something strange starts to happen about midway through, when things start going haywire for the trio marooned in this frigid hell. A pivotal moment in this movie about snowbound paranoiacs unfolds in the shadow of The Thing, arguably the definitive movie about snowbound paranoiacs. It’s a touch on the nose, you think, adding to the sensation that The Lodge is maybe trying a little too hard at being one of those ponderous mediations on life and shit, man. Likewise, the script seems to be all too eager to provide an explanation for the strange events that begin to torment the character’s minds, so much so that you’re left wondering if this The Lodge is really content to just be a moody existential drama that’s riffing on a fairly common motif. Granted, even that nagging concern doesn’t diminish what a powerfully atmospheric stretch this part of the film is: it’s also full of painterly compositions and sparse eeriness, emphasizing the bleak, purgatorial despair of these wayward souls caught at the crossroads of grief, revenge, and trauma.
Had Franz and Fiala settled for this, The Lodge would likely have been fine: their filmmaking chops are too formidable to really land with a thud, even if they’re in the service of something conventional or predictable. Thankfully, though, they also have a hell of a wry streak to them because The Lodge takes a damn turn. I wouldn’t dare spoil it since doing so would rob you of the…well, I was going to say “pleasures” of The Lodge, but I think it’s more apt to say “intrigue.” Even though it takes a crooked path, the story is no less harrowing or downright fucked up. In fact, I would say it somehow becomes even more fucked up after it teases the possibility of killing off a couple of kids. Rare is the movie that coaxes you into holding your breath until its final bleak note lingers into the credits, when that tension cools into a weird, almost bemused feeling of catharsis. This is one of those movies that feels like it’s daring you to chuckle in the face of a truly horrific outcome for every single character involved.
The Lodge arguably doesn’t feel as thematically hefty as a result, but I find that it taps into the stuff of twisted, primal horror. Essentially, this is a tale that reminds us to be careful what we wish for when we mess with the wrong person: in a way, it’s a fractured fairy tale riff on “Hansel and Gretel,” only it supposes its “witch” is actually a victim of repressed trauma that comes rushing to the forefront. What’s more, pushing her into the oven is only the beginning of this ordeal: The Lodge imagines what happens if the witch escapes to turn the tables. Maybe it feels a little bit simplistic, but fuck it: sometimes, horror is at its best when it’s tapping into this primal sort of moralistic terror.
Plus, I don’t want to sell short what a great goddamn performance Riley Keough gives here. In one of the film’s many surprises, Grace emerges as the protagonist after spending much of the first act as an enigma. Franz and Fiala craftily obscure her, almost reducing her to hearsay at the beginning: we learn of her past but see almost nothing of the woman she’s become until she’s in the car for their ill-fated trip. It subtly frames her as the villain in the audience’s mind: here we have two children who just lost their mother because of this supposed homewrecker, and the early going almost invites you to cast judgment on her.
Keough’s turn is swiftly disarming, though, and paints Grace as a woman practically walking on eggshells as she navigates this tense situation. She especially captures the brutally uncomfortable awkwardness of it all: the way she carefully chooses every word, delicately trying to avoid making the situation even worse reminds you of the worst, most tense family gatherings where everyone realizes they’re stuck with each other whether they like it or not. You wish this poor woman could escape even before the more overtly horrifying stuff begins to seize the home. Once that happens, Keogh’s performance becomes even more gripping as the audience watches her eyes slowly glaze over with the desperation of a lost soul. It’s fair to say she carries the stretch of the movie that suggests an existential doom for its trio, where Grace especially cycles through the stages of grief, from the desperation of denial to the cold, steely acceptance that grips her during the climax. It’s one of the most magnificently-realized portraits of someone losing their mind in recent memory.
Grace’s descent into the hell forged by the various forces closing in on her lends an unexpected gravitas to The Lodge. This, ultimately, is what endures: the sight of Keough losing herself to a void of hopelessness as a pipe organ drones on, heightening the sense on impending doom that hangs thick over the entire film. Once you dig beneath the impulse to kind of laugh off its oddly playful turn, you’ll find The Lodge’s another trick: it really hits you in the gut with the realization that you’ve just watched a trauma victim’s worst fears unfold right before your eyes. This is a bleak reminder that trauma is just a hair-trigger’s pull away from resurfacing; granted, The Lodge presents an extreme—if not elaborate—scenario, but it resonates nonetheless because we never really know the immense levels of guilt and damage some people harbor. It's the stuff of good old fashioned horror: the notion that some of the world’s worst impulses lurk behind deceptive façades. Likewise, the best horror movies—and The Lodge is definitely one of the best in recent memory—sometimes set out to lull us into a familiar trance before stabbing us right in the gut. Leaving viewers wondering if they should recoil in revulsion or to uneasily chuckle at it? That’s the best—and arguably most horrific—trick of all.
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