The Lodge comes to us courtesy of Neon Studios (Parasite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire) and Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, the directors of the modestly successful 2014 horror film Goodnight Mommy. It was written by Fiala, Franz, and Sergio Casci, and stars Riley Keough as Grace, sole survivor of a deeply secretive religious cult wherein the leader convinced everyone in it to follow him in the afterlife by way of suicide as a means of finally reaching heaven. Grace is engaged to Richard (Richard Armitage), the divorced father of two young children named Aiden (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh), whose mother recently passed away from suicide after discovering that Richard planned to marry Grace. Concerned that the kids may resent Grace’s presence in their lives through no fault of her own, Richard decides they should all take a family trip to a nearby winter lodge in order to bond with each other, especially so the kids and Grace can have an easier time getting along. Once there, however, and with Richard having stayed behind a few days in order to take care of some business dealings, Grace and the children begin to experience some very strange, largely unexplainable phenomena. Unsure if Grace is entirely there as far as her mental state is concerned, the children begin to grow worried that her old cult-ish behaviors may be resurfacing, and try as she might, Grace herself is unsure if she will be able to overcome them again. This movie also stars Alicia Silverstone, Danny Keough, and Lola Reid.
The Lodge is very much a slow burn type of horror film, but while the term “slow burn” can often be used as a euphemism for “boring” in any variety of other genres, in horror it often carries a positive connotation. That’s not to say that every slow-moving horror film is, in fact, a good movie (there are many that are quite bad), but the genre, more often than not, benefits from stories taking their time to build up tension rather than rushing to give everyone the answers to what it is they’re supposed to be scared by or are meant to be looking for. In the case of this movie, that benefit is clearly evident, as we are put into isolation with our three main characters with no way out due to a massive winter storm that forces them to stay in the cabin for much longer periods of time than they would like (in many ways, this might be the most perfect horror film for our current moment).
As the children and Grace grow closer to each other, and as they become more annoyed with the opposing party’s non-acceptance of each other, we are forced to watch every moment of discomfort, and one of the things this film does so well is make us understand that that discomfort is not from a singular source (like Grace), but from the idea of that source, from the idea of what Grace is to the kids. The film also does a great job of making us understand that Grace is not the only one capable of horrifying things. Sure, the kids aren’t inherently evil, but neither is Grace, and their emotional connection to their mother, compounded with their belief that Grace was the cause of her suicide, means we don’t know if Grace is safe either. We are with these characters every step of the way, whether we want to be or not, and as we begin to wonder whether or not Grace is in the right mental state to be taking care of these children, the claustrophobic nature of the storytelling also forces us to ask whether they are in the right mental state to be cared for by her. And that is when we’re made to feel most uncomfortable, which means it’s time to talk about the performances.
Jaeden Martell is becoming something of a phenomenon within very specific horror and sci-fi circles, after his turns in the two It films, as well as his earlier work in Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special. Most people would more than likely recognize him as “the Nazi child masturbatin’ in the bathroom” from Knives Out, but here, he reaches a new level of unsettling. The level of discomfort Grace is made to feel at the children’s hands is skin crawling, despite how much she tries to help them both, and Martell’s ease of letting Grace know how much he dislikes her makes that discomfort all the darker the longer the movie goes on. Martell isn’t the inly good performer in the movie though, nor the only one quickly becoming a sort of horror icon; for the part he has in the movie’s proceedings, even Richard Armitage manages to steal some screen time. Each of the performers turn in really great work, especially Lia McHugh as a relative newcomer to the genre (so far as I know, anyway), but this really is Riley Keough’s movie, and her performance is as arresting a horror show as I’ve ever witnessed; maybe it’s not quite up to the levels of Toni Collette in Hereditary, but she gives Anya Taylor-Joy’s The Witch protagonist a run for her money in terms of how she reacts to whatever it is that’s meant to be happening to her.
Keough in this film is astonishing, and cements herself as one of the most instinctually gifted actresses of her generation, every nuance in her eyes both terrifying and unknowable all at once; we understand something bad is happening in her head much of the time, but we don’t know if she is trying to shield herself from it, understand it, or already gave into it. There’s not a whole lot more I can say without spoiling the film, but it is genuinely one of the most tragically terrifying performances I’ve seen in quite some times, the kind that only comes around once every few years.
The Lodge is not a perfect movie, however, and we’re about to get into what doesn’t work about it, as great as it otherwise might be. The main issue with The Lodge being a slow burn is that the slowness itself can sometimes feel a little bit self-indulgent, as if directors Fiala and Franz are trying to scream at the audience “THIS IS A GREAT HORROR FILM,” as opposed to letting the movie speak for itself. It certainly doesn’t break the movie in any meaningful way, but when masterworks like The Witch and Hereditary have near-perfect pacing with largely the same kind of tonal hesitation great horror films like this really need, it is a noticeable area of improvement you can’t quite shake upon reflection.
As well, occasionally the storytelling can feel a little too ambiguous for its own good. For quite a long time within certain segments of the film, we’re meant to question whether or not Grace is losing her mind and sleepwalking as she feels the cult influence, but the sequencing of this segment is so repetitive, and often so unclear, that it becomes somewhat of a chore to keep up with. Ambiguity in horror is nothing new, but the best horror films measure it out delicately, whereas this somewhat felt as if the directors were trying to take things that they knew from other great horror films and put them all into a narrative over a stretched-out ambiguity in the name of making “smart horror.” It feels a bit like homework when we’re already trying to figure out where the story’s meant to be going, and the extra layer is a bit burdensome to have to sift through.
The Lodge is certainly one of the more unsettling, darkly-themed horror films I’ve seen in recent memory, and Neon Studios would be wise to continue exploring this territory in which they’re relatively new. It may not be on quite the same level as something like Hereditary, but its mission is so different from that film’s, it almost seems like a wholly different subgenre within horror. Regardless, Riley Keough’s performance is one of the finest to be newly minted into the horror canon, and, if they make just a few little adjustments to their storytelling style, directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz could have a sincere future with this kind of stuff as masters of the craft.
I’m giving “The Lodge” an 8.6/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.