The 2019 Sundance hit film “The Lodge,” which is either a psychological horror film about individuals trapped in purgatory, or a psychological study about trauma in the modern era, stands astride as an impressive and slow-burn exploration of feminine repression. The film opens with a playhouse, a tragic suicide, and ultimately people grieving at the funeral. “The Lodge” is a horror film in the vein of Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents”, Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”, and John Carpenter’s “The Thing” which uses chilling claustrophobia and even menacing metaphysics to lure the viewer into a smothering experience.
“The Lodge” is a jaw-droppingly impressive sophomore feature from the writing/directing duo of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. The pair made an unsettling splash in 2015 with their Austrian debut horror film “Goodnight Mommy”. They have both obviously studied from the masters, including Austrian’s own Michael Haneke, while still making their films unique. By avoiding cheap jump scares, Franz and Fiala have crafted an atmospheric piece of shudder cinema with an empathetic and shattering center. “The Lodge” is an impressive follow-up, which continues the duo’s brooding style, is a film which surely takes its time to unravel. The film examines the imprint of trauma as a family spends their Christmas holiday in a remote cottage. Like “Goodnight Mommy,” the less you know about the movie going in, the better, and the deliberate pacing actually allows the build-ups to become more unsettling.
The film opens with Richard (Richard Armitage) who is looking to move forward with his life and finalize a divorce. His wife Laura (Alicia Silverstone) appears to be dragging the process out while raising their children, Mia (Lia McHugh) and Aiden (Jaeden Martell). Tragically, Laura commits suicide, leaving Richard to raise the kids by himself. As time passes and Christmas approaches, Richard informs his kids that they will be taking a trip to their remote home on a frozen lake. This is done with the hidden agenda of introducing Mia and Aiden to Grace (Riley Keogh), Richard’s new girlfriend, as he tries to reconnect with his children. The children fail to welcome Grace into their family, putting forward a lot of skepticism and resistance towards her. On Grace’s part, she attempts to connect with the kids, while staying empathetic to the plight of them grieving for their mother. Richard unexpectedly has to return to work, leaving Grace and the kids alone in the cabin. As time passes, this leads all of them down roads of tension, bitterness, and anxiety. Grace has trauma of her own, and begin to feel high levels of panic as these issues begin to haunt her nightmares again.
“The Lodge” works best in the first 75 minutes or so, where the filmmaking duo of Franza and Fiala allow the build-up to occur. The filmmakers specialize in capturing the trauma the kids are enduring, and the actors express grief and fear in a way that is very authentic and bleak. Riley Keough is outstanding here. She continues to prove herself to be one of the most effective and layered actresses working today. Having built an impressive streak thus far with supporting roles such as “American Honey” and “The House That Jack Built”, Keough acting in “The Lodge” is a revelation. Her performance is grounded in heartbreak and menace but also balanced with grace. While we feel the kids’s torment, we also feel her torment in a very even-handed and disquieting way.
Faith and religion also play a huge factor in “The Lodge.” As Mia and Aiden search for information about Grace online, they discover that she was a survivor of a religious cult which performed mass suicide in their search for communion with God. Grace is triggered when she notices that the house is surrounded by faith-based paintings, antiques, and a cross that hangs on the wall. During the final 30 minutes the film does hit a lot of the same notes, and some of the terror begins to wear thin. But the mood and atmosphere, characterizations, and of course Keough’s performance, reign supreme here. Throughout the course of the film Grace represses her emotions, refusing to give into the hysteria being pressed upon her until it reaches a boiling point. This a bleak horror movie that will certainly be let down some audiences just looking for a “scary horror movie”. The most terrifying element to the “The Lodge” is just how it captures human trauma which feels so real – the thought that any of us can be surrounded by people and never know what’s beneath the surface of their psyche.
You could remove all the horror movie tropes that exist in “The Lodge” and you would still have an eerie and intense chronicle of the collapse of a family. That is not to undermine or take away from the horror genre, just a point as to how gifted the filmmaking duo of Franz and Fiala really are. It will be intriguing to see what they do next, having taking audiences to uncomfortable human truths in their first two feature films. And as for the ending, well–it will forever haunt my mind in the most unnerving way.