2020, R, 108 min. Directed by Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz. Starring Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh, Richard Armitage, Alicia Silverstone, Lola Reid.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Feb. 14, 2020
The essence of drama will always have a thread of cruelty sewn into it (even the clown slipping on a banana skin hurts his ass). If the characters are not subjected to some kind of existential driver then there is no reason for them to enter into the story. The Lodge embraces that cruel streak as its raison d'etre.
It begins with those small cruelties that mean everything to those involved. A family has been shattered: The father (Armitage) has run off with a younger woman (Keogh), leaving his estranged wife Laura (Silverstone) to look after their children, Aidan (Martell) and Mia (McHugh). But he wants to make Grace part of their lives, and a Christmas holiday in the backwoods, just him and Grace and the kids, is the way to do it. Except Richard can't be there, the kids hate Grace, and they already know her dirty little secret about how exactly she and their father met.
That's the first twist of the knife. That daddy has to stay at home and work, leaving the kids and Grace in a cabin, that's another twist. And the blade keeps twisting and twisting and twisting, deeper and broader, pulling all the flesh away.
The script, by Scottish scriptwriter Sergio Casci and directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, remixes many of the elements of Fiala and Franz's first film, the equally tricky Goodnight Mommy. Claustrophobia, delusion, unwilling mothers, antagonistic children, all recur here, but they add strands of faith and religion, meshing cult beliefs with cabin fever, and the interplay of innocence and naivety, punishment and contrition. They deliberately play with sympathies, not even really clarifying who is the victim and who is the villain – if those words really quite apply – until the story crystalizes around a startling, heartbreaking performance by Keogh, the walking definition of inherited damage. Without her, much of the drama would fall apart, and her more-than-passing resemblance to Silverstone fills in some fascinating backstory with the idea that Richard swapped the mother of his children for a "younger model." Yet how much misery does the audience need to see a likable and damaged character endure?
The icy beauty of the countryside, in contrast with the claustrophobic wood paneling of the lodge, creates two equally terrifying environments to let this psychodrama play out. It's a unique counterbalance: It's unfortunate, then, that Fiala and Franz are so heavy handed with their symbolism, both religious (how many times can the same picture of a saint fall over?) and in the use of a doll's house to symbolize internal collapse and manipulation. Seriously, horror directors should declare a moratorium on hand-crafted figurines for the next couple of years (or at least until memories of Hereditary wear off).
Yet the biggest issue – beyond a final sneaking suspicion that much of what has gone before is impossible – is that cruelty. It's all emotional, rarely physical, and almost bloodless, but it's so constant as to be grueling. It was there in Goodnight Mommy, and it's not that Fiala and Franz relish it. Instead, it's that they place so much emphasis on it that they lose perspective, and the closing act becomes a grueling slog. After a while the knife is so twisted that all is left is sadness, and the denouement is inevitable. That may be the point, but they make it sooner than they realize.