A soon-to-be stepmom is snowed in with her fiancé’s two children at a remote holiday village. Just as relations begin to thaw between the trio, some strange and frightening events take place.
Directors: Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz
Writers: Sergio Casci, Severin Fiala
Stars: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Richard Armitage
Horror is in a creatively robust periods with films like “Hereditary” and “Get Out” crossing the line that separates genre and “serious fare” (for those who make such distinctions). The Midnight section at Sundance has been a bit lackluster in recent years (with some striking exceptions like the aforementioned Ari Aster flick, “Mandy” and “The Babadook”) but 2019 came roaring back, illustrating the resurgence and depth of what this genre is providing nowadays. From a documentary to a mood piece to an action film, this was one of Sundance 2019’s strongest programs and one of the best Midnight sections I’ve ever seen at any festival. People were buzzing about titles and studios were snatching them up, realizing that horror is a critical and commercial leader right now.
The best of the midnights I’ve seen so far is “The Lodge,” from the directors of the unsettling “Goodnight Mommy,” Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. They’re working once again in that deeply uneasy register, and working once again with that fraught dynamic between children and parents—well, in this case, a potential stepparent. With elements of the snowed-in insanity of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” this atmospheric mindf**k was one of the most divisive movies of Sundance 2019, drawing raves and pans in equal measure. I’m a fan.
From the opening scenes, Franz and Fiala drench “The Lodge” in looming dread. They have the nerve to open with a series of Chekhov’s gun images, including a literal weapon on a table, only to reveal that they’re miniatures in a large doll house in the home of kids Aidan (Jaeden Lieberher) and Mia (Lia McHugh). Their parents Richard (Richard Armitrage) and Laura (Alicia Silverstone) are going through a divorce and Richard has taken up with Grace (Riley Keough), the only surviving member of a doomsday cult that recently committed mass suicide. While writing about the cult, Richard met Grace, and left Laura. The kids do not like Grace. In an effort to do something to bring the family together, Richard brings the quartet to a remote Northwest cabin for Christmas, but he has to go back to town for a few days. The kids will get closer to Grace. What could go wrong?
Shot on film by cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis (a regular Yorgos Lanthimos collaborator on films like “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”), “The Lodge” has an oppressive, striking visual style. Every element of the design team works together to create a nerve-rattling mood. You can feel the rush of cold coming through the window as snow buffets the house. There’s a sense of danger in every scene, and a danger created not narratively as much as it is through the film’s visual language and sound design. The film works on levels of discomfort – the one with a new stepparent, the one with an imposing storm outside, the one created by isolation, and, oh, the one from the only adult in the house going crazy.
A lot of “The Lodge” relies on what could be called “things real people don’t do,” but horror has a long history of exaggerating human behavior in mood pieces, which this most definitely is. Don’t come into it trying to break down the plot’s inconsistencies, just give yourself over to what it does to you with its foreboding imagery, and the unsettling performance from the great Riley Keough, who makes Grace a fascinatingly elusive character. Does Grace seem a bit odd because we’re seeing her through the children’s POV? Because of her dark background? Because of her anxiety over being a sudden mother? Although Keough is smart enough to not play her as a pure question mark, grounding her while also leaving enough open to make her fascinating.
“The Lodge” is a truly unsettling movie, the kind of horror film that rattles you on an almost subconscious level, making you more uncomfortable than going for cheap scares. Don’t ask questions or dissect the believability of the plot. Just check in.
– Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com