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In Theaters: THE LODGE (2020)

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THE LODGE
(US/UK - 2020)

Directed by Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala. Written by Sergio Casci, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. Cast: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Richard Armitage, Alicia Silverstone, Lia McHugh, Daniel Keough. (R, 108 mins)

If you're a fan of the so-called "elevated horror" trend and like it uncompromisingly grim and relentlessly downbeat, then be sure to check out THE LODGE, a film so dark and depressing that it makes HEREDITARY and MIDSOMMAR look like the feel-good crowd-pleasers of their years. The English-language debut of Austrian writers/directors and aunt/nephew filmmaking team Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, THE LODGE shares some superficial similarities with their acclaimed--and wildly overrated--2015 film GOODNIGHT MOMMY, namely that it traps a woman and two children in an isolated house of psychological horrors. While THE LODGE is a superior--and meaner--film in every way, Franz and Fiala still can't help tripping over their own feet in the way overly contrived and illogical things have to happen in order to advance the plot. There almost always has to be a suspension of disbelief to a certain degree, and for a while, you aren't sure what kind of horror you're dealing with in THE LODGE. That's when it works best, when it hasn't shown all of its cards. And even after that, it's still got its hooks in you, but the hoops it has to jump through to accomplish that do diminish it somewhat. Without spoiling anything (and if you've seen it, you'll know what I'm talking about), some immediate questions I had were "Why even show her the gun?" and "Does that even look like a real newspaper?"






Or better yet, don't. THE LODGE is the kind of psychological chiller where it's best to just roll with it and--enjoy, if that's the appropriate word--the way the filmmakers string you along in effective slow-burner fashion. Laura (Alicia Silverstone) doesn't handle it well when her estranged psychologist husband Richard (Richard Armitage) breaks the news that he wants to proceed with their divorce so he can marry his younger girlfriend Grace (Riley Keough). With Laura soon out of the picture in a abrupt and jarring fashion, Richard is left with two grief-stricken children--17-year-old Aidan (Jaeden Martell from the IT movies and KNIVES OUT) and 12-year-old Mia (Lia McHugh)--and even after jumping ahead six months, they aren't ready to accept perceived homewrecker Grace in any capacity, let alone as their potential stepmother. In the first of several displays of his terrible decision-making skills, Richard thinks the four of them spending Christmas at the family's isolated mountain lodge in a remote area of Massachusetts would be a good chance for Grace and the kids to bond. Of course, he's wrong (he gets a curt "Fuck you" from Aidan for even suggesting it), and on top of that, he won't even be there since he has to drive several hours back to the city for two days for work and won't be rejoining the three of them until Christmas Day. The kids dismiss the shy, quiet Grace as a "psycho," and admittedly, she has some heavy baggage: when she was 12, she was the sole survivor of the mass suicide of 39 members of a cult led by her religious fanatic father (Keough's own father Daniel Keough in news footage flashbacks), all of them poisoning themselves after putting duct tape with the word "Sin" over their mouth. Years later, Richard studied the cult, wrote a book about it, and treated Grace before leaving his wife for her. Grace still suffers from PTSD and social anxiety, but has made great strides in putting her past behind her and trying to live a normal life. But when left alone with the kids, there's little else but tension and discomfort. Aidan wants nothing to do with her and won't even acknowledge her when she addresses him, but Mia seems to warm up a little, at least until showing her some old home movie footage of happier times with Mom and Dad at the lodge, which sends Grace into her room scrambling for her pills.





To say anything more would probably be saying too much, but things get more unsettling by the hour, especially with a blizzard rolling through, followed by the loss of electricity and running water, all of the food, coats, Christmas decorations, Grace's meds, and her little dog Grady disappearing, and Grace looking out the window to see the disturbing sight of 39 snow angels as she keeps hearing her dead father's voice commanding her to "repent." Obviously, there's more than one twist by the time it's over, and the big one is a shocker when it lands, especially since it plays out to an even greater tragedy. The Plot Convenience Playhouse elements can be frustrating (the gun!), but this is a terrific showcase for a never-better Keough, who's not quite Toni Collette or Florence Pugh here but still generates sympathy throughout (especially with Grace's story about how Grady was a gift she gave herself since her father never allowed her to have a dog), especially once things go south and her eyes take on an aura of dead, despairing emptiness. The kids probably never take the time to realize it, but if there's any villain in this story, it's Richard, whose selfish narcissism is so subtle that it takes a while to register. But watch how he seems almost inconvenienced by his children needing to grieve the loss of their mother (the kids well-played by Martell and McHugh, especially in the ways Martell shows how fiercely protective Aidan is of his little sister). Richard probably thinks he's a good dad, but he's aggressively trying to force the kids to get over their mom (it's also worth noting the resemblance between Silverstone and Keough, indicating that Richard is trading in his approaching-middle-aged wife for a younger version), and doesn't think anything of having inconsiderately loud sex with Grace during the family's first night in the lodge--Aidan and Mia lie in their beds, listening to all of it--before he heads back to the city for two days the next morning. It might take a second viewing to sift through some of what's going on here, and even as I'm writing this, I'm already thinking the clumsy way the gun is introduced almost has to be intentional in a subconscious ulterior motive kind-of way on Richard's part, though that might be reading too much into it.






It's also hard to ignore some of the similarities between THE LODGE and Ari Aster's HEREDITARY (the big one being a dollhouse diorama that Franz and Fiala utilize as a kind of visual commentary on the proceedings) and MIDSOMMAR (the story kicked off by an inconceivable tragedy), which may be happy accidents considering THE LODGE was shot in early 2018, several months before HEREDITARY even opened (it screened at Sundance in January 2019, but Neon sat on it for another year after bumping it from November 2019 to February 2020, possibly to create some distance from the inevitable Aster comparisons). With its brutally cold, snowy setting over the Christmas holiday, it also joins the ranks of essential wintertime horror movies, a sentiment that it even addresses when Grace, Aidan, and Mia watch John Carpenter's THE THING on TV. It's also the first production in five years from the relaunched, in-name-only Hammer, though it has little stylistic connection with the legendary house of horror aside from a quick shout-out to 1961's SCREAM OF FEAR. THE LODGE has some structural flaws for sure (Mia seems devoutly religious early on, until that character trait is more or less abandoned), but with its disquieting score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, the unnerving sound design, and strong performances by Keough, Martell, and McHugh, THE LODGE is a finely-crafted, claustrophobic day-ruiner of a fright flick that gets under your skin. And while her screen time is brief, it's worth mentioning that between her appearances in KING COBRA, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, and this, along with some other under-the-radar indies, '90s icon Alicia Silverstone has very quietly been establishing some character actor bona fides 25 years removed from CLUELESS.



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