sundance 2019

The Lodge Is an Unsettling Up-Is-Down Horror Tale

Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

In The Lodge, faith is a kind of Chekhov’s gun, a potentially game-changing tool just lying there, waiting to be picked up by the wrong person. The faith in this case is of the Christian variety, and two mother figures — one straight-laced Catholic, the other a survivor of an Evangelical death cult — battle for control over it in the minds of their children. (It certainly adds to the tension that there is an actual gun in the scene as well.) As a psychological down-is-up horror movie, The Lodge has a few solid tricks up its sleeve. But when the smoke and mirrors clear, it’s ultimately a story about trauma, and a rather bleak one at that.

Your heart kind of sinks for writer-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala (Goodnight Mommy) in the opening moments of The Lodge, which include an empty interior that turns out to be a dollhouse, a frantic mother, and a head stuck out a car window. The eerie rhythms of the universe that gave us Deep Impact and Armageddon, Antz and A Bug’s Life, and Fyre and Fyre Fraud have conspired to make The Lodge exist in Hereditary’s shadow, but while some tonal and iconographic similarities exist, the two films jump off their shared diving board into very different corners of the psycho-mom pool.

After a horrific opening gotcha to make sure you’re awake and paying attention, the film picks up with brother and sister Aidan (Jaeden Lieberher) and Mia (Lia McHugh) grieving the death of their mother Laura (Alicia Silverstone) and stubbornly refusing to meet their father Richard’s (Richard Armitage) girlfriend. They blame Grace (Riley Keough) for their mother’s suicide; she and their father had been separated for several years, but Laura killed herself the day he announced that he intended to remarry. Laura had an ardent Catholic faith, and the children hang on to her memory with equal fervor; Mia’s doll becomes a talisman of sorts for her memory. But, being children, they are eventually forced to spend Christmas at the family’s mountain lodge with their father and stepmom-to-be. We see them pack, all the essentials — sweaters, long johns … candles? Sea monkeys? — and hit the road.

They have extra reason to be worried about Grace, especially after Googling her. Grace was made famous in the news as an adolescent, having been the only survivor of a cult suicide, and meant to spread the group’s apocalyptic message to the world. She seems perfectly nice in person, and even has a cute little dog that she brings along, but when we see her alone with Richard, she exhibits some signs of anxiety, and depends on a bottle of pills to keep her mental state regulated. She seems especially uneasy around the crosses left around the house by the late Laura, and a painting of the Virgin Mary in the dining room. Then Richard is called back to the city for work, and Grace and the children are left alone in the middle of nowhere, as a blizzard hits and snows them in.

You may think you can guess where this film is going based on that description, but the interesting trick Fiala and Franz pull lies in a subtle shift in perspective. There’s no one moment in which it happens, but once we’re at the lodge, we soon realize that we’re watching things unfold from Grace’s point of view, and the children are the hostile forces with her in the house. When the power goes out and their belongings and provisions disappear, it doesn’t take long for some people’s grip on reality — including ours — to start slipping. As both the closest thing we have to a surrogate, and someone we’re not sure if we can trust ourselves, Keough’s performance walks a tricky line skillfully.

The Lodge’s final reveal may feel like a bit of a deflation after all of the ominous elements it’s thrown together. Without giving away too much, it does feel as if Grace’s and Laura’s religion is a mere spooky prop for Fiala and Franz, an aesthetic theme to add mood and atmosphere to the increasingly desperate conditions in the house. But take away the religious themes and you still have an effectively chilling tale about how past experiences stay buried within us, and can never fully be defused.

The Lodge Is an Unsettling Up-Is-Down Horror Tale