The Lodge is a triumph of style that might have been a truly great horror film if it had something beneath its impressive aesthetic dressing, intense mood, and escalating suspense. So much about the film works so well, and yet at the end I had a hard time feeling anything but let down because it felt like the plot was just an excuse for the style, rather than the object of its elaboration. The Lodge is the kind of film that draws you in, gets you engaged with its mysteries, and builds up expectations of soul-stirring revelations, only to leave you at the end with a sort of cheap ambivalence that doesn't really add up. Don't get me wrong-I love horror films with ambiguous endings, the kind that nag at you and keep you awake at night-but the ending of The Lodge feels more like the filmmakers just ran out of ideas or didn't have any particularly deep ones to begin with.
The majority of the film takes place just before Christmas at the titular lodge, an isolated vacation home deep in a snow-driven forest and miles from anyone or anywhere. We spend most of our time in this snowy isolation with Grace (Riley Keough) and her two soon-to-be step-children, teenage Aidan (Jaeden Lieberher) and adolescent Mia (Lia McHugh). Prior to coming to the lodge, Aidan and Mia had not met Grace, but they know two important things about her: (1) their father, Richard (Richard Armitage), left their emotionally unstable mother Laura (Alicia Silverstone) for her, and (2) she is the only surviving member of a cult whose leader was her father and whose entire membership committed mass suicide (clearly modeled on the Heaven's Gate cult, whose 39 members committed collective suicide in 1997). Thus, Grace, young and pretty and seemingly harmless, comes with an incredible amount of baggage both familial and psychological, so it's no wonder that Aidan and Mia resent her and don't want anything to do with her. In what can only be described as a truly desperate bid to get his reluctant children to "get to know" their future stepmom, Richard makes the disastrous decision to leave them alone at the lodge for several days while he goes back to the city to finish up work before Christmas.
To say that things go wrong would be a vast understatement, and the film's primary sense of dread and its driving narrative force rests on our learning exactly how things will go bad, and for most of the film directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz (Goodnight Mommy) keep us thoroughly engaged with the unfolding events, which have a hushed quality that matches the solemn, wintry environment that serves as their backdrop. The screenplay by Sergio Casci (The Caller), Fiala, and Franz provides an intriguing (if arguably contrived) scenario that offers all kinds of possibilities regarding blended parental-child tensions, haunting memories, post-traumatic stress, and the like, and so much of the film is so good at teasing these possibilities that it makes the ultimate superficiality of the proceedings that much more frustrating. Around the midway point, the film suggests two major possibilities regarding what is happening at the lodge-one cruelly psychological and the other terrifyingly supernatural-and the filmmakers keep both possibilities open for a long time.
The problem is that the resolution tells us little about the characters and their motivations, revealing them to be fairly shallow types, rather than fully realized human beings. Keough gets a lot of screen time that involves quiet frustration and mounting dread, and she arguably gets to turn it on when her sanity comes into question, but it makes one wonder whether Grace needed such a dramatic backstory to give her a sense of urgency. The suicidal cult subplot is both over- and undercooked, as is Aidan and Mia's grief over the destruction of their family, which they see as Grace's fault (Richard, the selfish bad father, is off screen so much you kind of forget about him). The film's dreadful sense of place, which is clearly modeled on Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), is expertly realized (much credit to cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, who has shot most of Yorgos Lanthimos's films), and it goes a long way toward distracting us from the story's lack of true substance. The Lodge isn't a horror film about much more than its own style.
Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Neon Films
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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