A horrifying tale of grief and isolation that will chill you to the bone.
Mixing together broad ideas about grief, family, isolation, faith and madness, The Lodge (2019) could have been in danger of becoming a bloated, messy affair, the story zipping between those different subjects so much that it’s hard to get a grasp on anything at all. It is to Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s credit then that their film is so utterly captivating, their slick direction and ability to eke out tension creating something truly haunting that actually takes advantage of those multiple angles, using them to keep us guessing as to where the sinister plot is heading to next. As the scares build up and inexplicable incidents begin to occur around the family at the centre of all of this, they find themselves questioning what is real, and what is not, doubts forming in their minds as to whom they can really trust (if anyone). One thing is for certain though, a getaway to a cabin in the middle of nowhere was definitely not the best way to spend time together.
Although the titular lodge doesn’t actually make an appearance until several minutes into the story, there’s something immediately creepy about Fiala and Franz’s film. Everything is too pristine, too perfect. But that’s the only way Laura (Alicia Silverstone) knows how to cope with her upcoming divorce from Richard (Richard Armitage), her bright, beautiful home easy to keep in check while the rest of her world is falling apart around her. Their children (Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh) are much more vocal about their objections though, their Dad’s new girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough), someone they’d rather not get to know. However, when Richard decides that they all need a Christmas break to their holiday cabin, it seems like they don’t have a choice, Richard determined to use the time together to get his kids to connect with Grace, especially since he’ll soon be married to her. That she happens to have been the subject of one of Richard’s books about cults is something that terrifies the children just as much as the idea of having her as a new mother, the research they carry out into her past throwing up even more questions about how that chapter of her life came to a close. Or maybe it never really ended.
Even before we find out about Grace’s dubious past, Fiala and Franz make her a formidable, mysterious figure, keeping her obscured behind frosted glass or hidden away in other rooms. When we eventually do meet her, we’re as wary of her as the children are, her sweet smile alluding to something else that might be lurking below the surface. Yet Riley Keough’s stunning performance is as multi-layered as that plot, her ominous presence slowly evolving as Grace finds her attempts to bond with the children don’t sit well with them, especially when it seems as though she’s trying to erase their real mother from their minds. It is here that the story starts to deliciously twist and turn, those rich themes steadily expanding over the course of the narrative as Fiala and Franz (and their co-writer Sergio Casci) lead us down one path, then double back to another, the doubts that they conjure around Grace gradually turning this into a horror film of the very realistic kind. The subtlety with which all this is handled is what makes it so effective, hints that are dropped throughout gradually building a picture as to where this is all heading, Fiala and Franz preferring to leave certain aspects to our imagination rather than explicitly spelling them out for us. As such, The Lodge is a film that gets under your skin without you realising it, those things that go bump in the night often not the most terrifying part of all of this.
That wonderful location adds to this awful sense of foreboding, cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis shooting the icy terrain in a way that suggests there’s no end to it, the aggressive snowstorms that whip past the windows seeming to hide unknown horrors and chilling us as we watch. Fiala and Franz also make the most out of that menacing log cabin, the place terribly claustrophobic despite there being space to move around, while the shadows that lurk in every corner hint at malevolent forces watching the family. Even the Christmas decorations Grace hangs up become more sinister than cheery, that dancing Santa doll doing nothing to brighten up the mantelpiece. The camera often lingers on images like this, slowly zooming in to play the tension to breaking point, turning innocent objects into items of terror (a picture of a religious figure, a dissolving tablet in a glass, a doll’s house that looks weirdly similar to the lodge – so much so that we’re constantly unsure as to which is the real thing). Pairing these visuals with excellent sound design, Fiala and Franz know how to play each horrifying second for as long as they can, the ancient cabin creaking and groaning with the elements, or with unknown footsteps as someone, or something, stalks about the place. In this way, they conjure an eerie atmosphere of dread that we can’t help but be enraptured by, the uneasiness of it all placing us directly alongside the family as things start to unravel around them.
Yet it is Grace that is the most affected by the cabin, that snowy horizon and lack of contact from the outside world emphasising her feelings of loneliness – feelings that become particularly potent as she begins to realise she’ll never be part of the family, no matter how much she desperately wants to be. With the days stretching horribly on, Grace falls apart before our very eyes, this once intimidating woman now suddenly doubting her sanity as impossible things start to happen around her, often finding herself waking up in rooms she can’t remember stepping into. It is Riley Keough’s brilliant performance that allows us connect to the story in these moments, her authentic, emotional portrayal making us utterly sympathise with Grace, especially when she’s trying to maintain her grasp on reality. But our association with her turns this into a disorientating watch, sequences playing out in dreamlike ways as Grace wanders about the cabin seemingly entranced, Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ jarring score unsettling us as much as her terrifying actions. It is the intriguing performances from Martell and McHugh that also make these scenes more impactful, their touching, protective relationship a breath of fresh air from the usual squabbling siblings we see in horror films. As they watch Grace become the very thing they always feared, their poignant portrayals ensure The Lodge truly resonates with us, even when we begin to suspect that their intentions might not always be the best.
It’s unfortunate that The Lodge will be compared to Ari Aster’s recent double whammy of Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019), ideas around grief and insanity an obvious similarity to Fiala and Franz’s film. Yet The Lodge really is its own beast, the directors broadening their horizons to take on other compelling themes along the way, each of these slowly unravelling to create a beautifully paced story that keeps us on our toes throughout. They use that stunning location to their advantage, building an increasingly ominous atmosphere that makes the scares even more effective, especially when paired with their superb, creepy visuals. However, it is the human, realistic elements of The Lodge that often hit us the hardest, in particular Grace and her constant, clawing feeling of always being on the outside looking in – something that is perfectly captured by Riley Keough’s incredible performance. It is this focus on humanity that also makes that ending a real gut punch, the inevitability of it doing nothing to soften what turns out to be a profoundly shocking blow.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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