'The Lodge' Review: Some Purgatories Are of Our Own Design [Sundance]

More lead roles for Riley Keough please.

The Lodge
Sundance

Grief and religion are common themes in horror films as both are given immense power by those in their grip. Combining the two can make for a harrowing and highly emotional descent into terror, and the latest film to bind them together is Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz‘s The Lodge. Grieving children and a woman scarred by an oppressive religious upbringing are trapped in a remote wintry cabin, and penance must be paid for sins real and imagined.

Aidan (Jaeden Lieberher) and Mia (Lia McHugh) are children of a broken home as their mother wallows in post-separation misery and their father moves on. Their dad’s (Richard Armitage) announcement that he’ll soon be marrying Grace (Riley Keough) is too much for his ex to bear, and she takes her own life in violent fashion. The kids are devastated — young Mia cries uncontrollably that now her mom won’t be able to get into heaven — but six months later Richard is trying to move them all forward. He plans a Christmas getaway to their remote cabin with Grace along for the ride, but it’s rough going at first as neither child wants anything to do with her both because she’s “replacing” their mom and because they discover she was the sole survivor of a cult mass suicide as a child. When he’s called away for a few days of work the hope is the three will come finally together, but things instead take a turn for the worse. Strange noises, disappearing belongings, and a fierce winter storm coalesce into a nightmare where trust, sanity, and safety wither in the darkness.

Much like Goodnight Mommy, Fiala & Franz’s first film, The Lodge is a meticulous slow-burn introducing detail and doubt in equally methodical doses. The threat enveloping Grace and the children seems to come from one (or more) places. Has Grace finally snapped? Are the kids spiteful monsters? Are they dead and trapped in a chilly purgatory? Is something supernatural taking up residence in the house’s halls? The script (co-written with Sergio Casci) does a fantastic job making all three explanations possible before fully revealing itself in one hell of a third act. The creepy sense of oppression and terror doubles down while the intensity ratchets up leading to sequences that will leave viewers holding their breath in fearful anticipation.

While the threat and fear of the unknown grow and swell throughout the film the visuals are sharp and beautiful in their precision and imagery. Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis — a veteran of many Yorgos Lanthimos films from his 2002 short up through The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) — captures the ominous nature of nature itself while finding the eerie stillness indoors. A recurring visual highlights the rooms of Mia’s elaborate dollhouse back home, and in addition to pairing nicely to the events unfolding at the lodge they also find similarities that begin to leave viewers unsure which they’re looking at initially.

Comparisons to 2017’s Hereditary are inevitable (and lazy) as rather than riffing on that very recent movie The Lodge is instead very much in line with the filmmakers’ previous effort. A woman, two children, and a big empty house are once again the makeup of characters and setting, and a growing unease over who’s the bigger threat pervades the screen. The shift here moves the focus beyond the intimate relationship and into the realm of oppression — from sources both external and internal — that shape the characters’ actions. The kids blame Grace for their situation, Grace carries trauma inflicted by her childhood with the cult, and reminders of the dead woman sit all throughout the house. The three are stuck, both in the lodge and in their own suffering, and there may not be an exit. There’s a reason we see the three watching John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) before they lose power and hope.

If there’s a weakness here it rests in the film’s midsection where the abundance of dread-filled visuals start to weigh it all down. Character details and forward momentum slow to a near crawl as we instead get imagery and sequences that, while haunting and beautiful in their eeriness, may leave some growing restless. Those more comfortable and appreciative of films that dedicate real time to the slow build of tension and terror will have no such qualms.

Those that can go with the film’s pace and motivations, though, will find much to enjoy from the visuals to the performances. Keough is charismatic in her attempts at joy and captivating in her breakdown, and you can’t help but wish she continues to get more lead roles in the future. The other standout is young McHugh who makes you feel her grief and fear — especially over her mother’s soul not getting into heaven — up through the very end.

The Lodge is a definite slow-burn that grows darker by the minute, and it commits to that grim progression. Proceed with caution.

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