Set in a remote cabin and featuring a bone-chilling performance by Riley Keough, this atmospheric psychological thriller never just sticks to an easy formula.
When a horror movie takes its title from a house, home, cabin or other structure, nothing good will happen within those walls. Indeed, when a film boasts a name like The Cabin in the Woods, The Last House on the Left or The Orphanage, it starts creeping people out — or at least evoking a considerable sense of foreboding — long before the first frames even roll. Unsurprisingly, The Lodge fits the mould perfectly. There's a lodge, naturally. It's in the middle of nowhere, of course, and it's further isolated by the expanse of ice and snow that surrounds it for miles. Inside, strange things happen, too. But don't go thinking that Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala's (Goodnight Mommy) slow-burning psychological thriller just sticks to an easy formula.
Before taking viewers to the feature's eponymous abode, the writer/director team visit two other houses: the home of journalist Richard (Richard Armitage), where kids Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh) are being dropped off for the weekend; and that of his estranged wife Laura (Alicia Silverstone), who he's just told that he wants a divorce. Neither place particularly sparkles with joy, especially after Laura reacts to her marital breakdown — and the fact that Richard is planning to wed his younger girlfriend Grace (Riley Keough) within months — in a far more drastic fashion than just exclaiming "as if!". Afterwards, Aidan and Mia aren't thrilled about their new stepmother-to-be either, or the fact that she'll be joining them and their dad at the family lodge over Christmas. They're especially suspicious given that Grace isn't just the new woman in their father's life but, as a child, was the only survivor of a doomsday cult's suicide pact — which Richard literally wrote the book on.
It's not hard to guess what happens next: they all go to the lodge, unease spreads and, after Richard heads back to the city to work for a few days, the situation explodes between Aidan, Mia and Grace. And while that may seem like as stock-standard a horror storyline (or family drama plot) as holidaying in a remote cabin, Franz and Fiala know how to mould even the most straightforward setup into something distinctive, chilling and disturbing. Their secret weapon: ambiguity. It's what made the aunt-and-nephew team's first feature, unsettling Austrian creepfest Goodnight Mommy, work such a charm as well. When The Lodge's central trio all awake to find a blizzard settling in, the power and water cut off, and all their food and warm clothes gone, there are a couple of perfectly reasonable explanations — but the possibility that something more sinister could be afoot also feels just as plausible.
Cue a perturbing film that doesn't just ooze uncertainty, but embraces it, dwells in it and splashes it across the screen at every turn. That applies to the characters as well as to the audience, with mistrust and paranoia sparking plenty of questions on-screen and off. Grace wonders if Aidan and Mia are messing with her, the kids ponder whether their future stepmum's horrific past might be seeping into their present, and they all eventually suspect bigger, stranger causes. And, intimating that more than one answer might apply, Franz, Fiala and their co-writer Sergio Casci keep absolutely everyone guessing. Also adding another layer of queries: the movie's frequent, lingering glimpses at Mia's astonishingly detailed doll's house, which is filled with miniature versions of the exact same sights and scenes playing out in the lodge.
If said doll's house reminds you of Hereditary and its disquieting diorama, that's understandable. They're made by different filmmakers, and The Lodge was in the works long before Hereditary premiered and became an instant cult horror hit, but the two films are kindred spirits. There's no limit on tragedy-fuelled explorations of family tensions, grief and distressing occurrences, after all — and no limit on atmospheric explorations of all of the above, either. Indeed, seeing how Franz and Fiala twist these familiar elements into something unique ranks among The Lodge's highlights. Mood-driven filmmakers, they ratchet up the eeriness with skill and style, firmly taking the film in its own direction.
That said, for all its pinpoint-effective ambiguity, needling sights and sounds, and agitating ambience, The Lodge might've still proven generic. It could've just come across as a routine mashup of Goodnight Mommy and Hereditary, too, albeit an assured and eye-catching one. That's if it didn't have Keough at its core — and her impact in this supremely well-crafted film cannot be underestimated. As a horror device, uncertainty only works if audiences genuinely believe that multiple outcomes could be possible, which is the case here thanks to Keough's rattling performance. In her bone-chilling stare and gut-wrenching screams, Grace is a clear trauma victim. In her jittery behaviour, she's also a source of immense stress and apprehension for Aidan and Mia. Viewers never quite know whether to be frightened of Grace or to be frightened with Grace, with the Mad Max: Fury Road, American Honey and Logan Lucky actor selling both options. Serving up a nerve-shattering onslaught of psychological thrills, The Lodge leans into that anxiety-sparking uncertainty as far as it can go.
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