The following post includes spoilers for the beginning of the movie The Lodge.
Watching the new horror movie The Lodge is like watching a body explode in very, very slow motion. (We assume. We have not actually watched bodies explode in slow motion.) But Austrian filmmakers Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz skip the actual gore in favor of a mood piece that turns home into hell and makes an art house perversion of family life, even as the volume of the action rarely rises above a whisper. The movie’s inciting incident, on the other hand, does go off like a bomb, and leaves viewers stumbling into the rest of the story.
The Lodge begins with Alicia Silverstone’s Laura dropping off her kids with her ex (Richard Armitage), and we soon realize that their split was an acrimonious one involving another woman. When Richard tells Laura they have to finalize their divorce because he’s already engaged to his new girl (whom we will soon learn is played by Riley Keough), Laura abruptly ends the conversation and leaves his kitchen. At this point, our instincts tell us that Silverstone will be at the center of the terrors to come: She seems to be the protagonist, and she is Alicia Silverstone, after all. That casting must mean something.
It does, but not quite the way that we might think. The movie cuts to Laura tidying her home before she sits down to sip wine at the dining table. The setting is cheerful as the camera slowly draws closer to her very familiar face. And even though we’re waiting for something to shatter the tension — maybe a primal scream — what happens next is inexplicable. Laura carefully removes a necklace she’s wearing, and then matter-of-factly draws a gun from her purse, puts it in her mouth, and pulls the trigger, sending blood spray and brain matter up the wall behind her. The camera stays trained on her just a little bit longer, forcing us to reckon with our shock. Oh God!
The first feature from Franz and Fiala since their 2015 breakout Goodnight Mommy, The Lodge centers on a young woman named Grace trying to tough it out through the first meeting with her fiancé’s young children (Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh) during a snowy cabin getaway. It’s an occasion that would be awkward no matter what, but here it follows closely on the heels of their mother’s suicide, and Grace’s future stepkids are grieving and furious at their father for replacing mom so quickly. With dad delayed on business, however, the three of them are left alone in this remote cabin in the middle of nowhere. And then, one night, everything in the house — from the food in the fridge to the holiday decorations — disappears, and no one seems to know why. As conditions deteriorate in the lodge, we are made to wonder whether something supernatural is afoot, or if the children are the ones terrorizing Grace to the point of madness. And while The Lodge may burn slowly, the dysphoria induced by its blistering beginning effectively sets up the paranoia and terror to come.
“We were looking for somebody an audience would never think could kill herself,” says Fiala. The directors came to Silverstone thanks to cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, who had worked with the actress on The Killing of a Sacred Deer and suggested her for the part of Laura. Silverstone had loved Goodnight Mommy, and the new role was so unusual compared to the material she typically reads that Fiala and Franz say she accepted immediately. “In our minds there was nothing better for [the film] than Alicia Silverstone,” Fiala says. “We are huge fans of Hitchcock’s Psycho, and wanted to achieve a similar effect: Having somebody that an audience would immediately recognize and might think was the lead of the movie, to heighten the shock of the suicide.”
To intensify the impact of the moment, the filmmakers — who describe themselves as having a shared brain — decided to make the scene of the suicide as counterintuitive as possible. Fiala and Franz have a special sense of space and a talent for turning their locations into characters in their own right. The stark, shadowy hallways of their debut feature Goodnight Mommy feel like an extension of the “monster” in that film, which focuses on a pair of twin boys convinced their mother has been replaced by an evil imposter. Even though we only briefly see Laura’s home in The Lodge, its art direction played an important role in presenting her death.
“We tried to make it as surprising for an audience as possible,” says Franz. “No dark corridors, ominous music, or horror sound design. Bright sunlight, lots of plants, a cozy home, sounds of summer, a weather lady chatting away on the radio, children playing in the streets outside — all to heighten the effect of the gunshot that occurs all of a sudden. Then life goes on. The kids keep playing, the radio moderator keeps talking. Just normal life, which makes the suicide even more shocking, sad, and real.”
Franz and Fiala even considered opening The Lodge cold with Laura’s death. No setup — just Alicia Silverstone killing herself and then cutting straight to her funeral before we learn about the circumstances of the divorce. But the filmmakers decided it was important for the audience to see Grace with her children, in order to establish her as a concrete, irreplaceable figure in the their lives, instead of an abstract idea of the Mother.
And if you’ve noticed that Silverstone and Keough share an eerie resemblance, you’re not wrong. In another Hitchcockian echo — think the delusion-inducing Kim Novak in Vertigo — the physical similarities between the two women were by design. The directors wanted Richard to have an obvious type, and seeing Grace for the first time only after Laura’s death gives us the uneasy sense that dad really traded out his ex for a younger model. It reinforces Laura’s grave feeling that she’s being discarded, and intensifies the children’s resentment towards Grace, whose face makes her something of a specter of their mom.
This, in turn, forces the viewer to take pity on the kids, who may or may not be responsible for driving dad’s fiancé to the brink of insanity over the course of the movie. Are they victims just like Grace, or are they responsible for what’s happening to her? And if so, are they justified for wanting to avenge the horrific death of their mother? Casting Silverstone gave the directors a handy red herring, and locks the idea of her in your head like a screen burn. “[Screenwriter] Sergio Casci’s original draft left us with our mouths agape. We even turned a page back and reread the whole thing,” says Franz. “We were shocked, and we wanted the audience to feel the same.”