The Lodge (2019)

I want to state up front I'm extremely torn on this movie, and I don't even want to touch on why until I've hopefully scared off a few people who should see this unspoiled. One of my goals in writing reviews is to avoid spoiling worthwhile experiences. On this site, that's usually easy, because a lot of what I'm looking at is pretty old, and quite a bit... well... just isn't good enough to worry about. The Lodge, however, is extraordinarily well made, extremely well acted, and effective at what it's trying to do. It's really just a question of whether "what it's trying to do" is going to impress you or leave you feeling like you wasted two hours of your life.

And I really can't offer a single detail as to why without rendering the point moot by spoiling literally every significant twist and turn this takes. So... I guess it's time for as oblique a spoiler warning as I can offer.

If you like horror - particularly atmospheric horror built around tone, if you enjoy movies that develop a sense of unease and pull you into a frightening situation, then this one might really appeal to you. I say might, because there's a caveat: you have to be patient with pacing. It takes a long time for this to get moving, and even when it does, you might not be satisfied with where it ends up.

I'm hoping anyone still reading either thinks that sounds like a chore or has already seen the film, because I'm about to get into details, starting with the premise and plot.

While the full cast list is slightly longer, for all intents and purposes, The Lodge is about three characters: Grace, Aiden, and Mia. Aiden and Mia's father plays a role early on and shows up again briefly at the end, there's a sort of prologue about the death of their mother including a funeral scene, but that's about it, aside from a few visions and a recording. A modified version of this script could probably have been made with literally just the three actors, though they didn't quite go that route. I'm not saying they should have - I'm just trying to explain how focused the movie is on their experiences in the titular lodge.

Aiden and Mia are brother and sister. Aiden's a little older (I'm guessing 13 or 14), and Mia looks to be somewhere between 9 and 12. At the beginning of the movie, their parents are split up, and their father is seeing Grace, a woman who grew up in a cult, every member of which died in a murder-suicide pact orchestrated by her father (excluding Grace, obviously). When Mia and Aiden's dad tells their mother he wants to finalize their divorce and marry Grace, their mother commits suicide, an act the children believe will prevent her from being admitted into heaven.

Following a brief stopover at Thanksgiving where the kids find a video about Grace's former cult online, we jump ahead to just before Christmas, when - against their protests - Aiden and Mia are taken to the family's lodge in the mountains to spend some time with Grace. For reasons that feel a little under-explained and admittedly contrived, the father needs to duck out for a few days due to work and return on the 25th.

Then, as you'd expect from the genre, weird shit starts happening. Grace sees and hears things. At first, it's all pretty minor and kept in check by her medication, but everything escalates when she wakes one morning to find everything they'd brought - including food, gifts, and decorations - has suddenly vanished. That includes Grace's dog and medications. Also, they don't have power or running water.

She tries to go for help, but winds up seeing visions, including a cross-shaped compound and the ghost of her father, before getting lost and arriving back at the lodge. In the snow she finds a photograph of Aiden and Mia bearing the words, "In memorial." The kids also show her an article claiming the three of them died. They're in purgatory.

Only they're not. Turns out, (almost) all of it is being manipulated by Aiden and Mia for reasons that aren't entirely spelled out. They clearly blame Grace for their mother's suicide, and they seem to believe she's crazy and are under the impression all this will prove it. And... I guess it works, because when Grace discovers her dog frozen to death (this seems to have been an accidental side effect, rather than part of the kids' plan), she becomes unresponsive. They try to tell her they took the missing things and turned off the power, but by now Grace has reverted to the beliefs of her youth.

The kids' father shows up and winds up dead (guess I forgot to mention there was a Chekhov's gun introduced in act one). Grace then sits everyone around a table, covers their mouths with tape with the word, "Sin," written on it (a callback to the aforementioned cult), and looks at the gun. Cut to credits.

First the good. This thing is really well done. By the time the movie gets going, the atmosphere has had time to build, and you feel like you're in the lodge. Riley Keough, the actress playing Grace, does some fantastic work building the character's state of mind as she unravels. You sympathize with her completely, even as you're terrified of what she'll do. It's a rare situation where she's unambiguously the victim and the monster by the end.

The kids (Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh) are great, too. They have a tough job which requires them to sell motives which go largely unexplained, and they somehow pull it off. There are countless moments this movie could have tripped up and broken the sense of immersion holding it together, but it remains steady. That's no small feat.

Obviously there's a "but" coming, and here it is: The Lodge does a really impressive job pulling off what it sets out to do, but is that actually something worthwhile?

At its core, this is a fairly generic horror setup that starts with the traditional "is this supernatural or not" question, then takes the road less traveled. On one hand, that's kind of neat. On the other... well... there's a reason these things usually have ghosts, demons, or aliens. Or barring those, you know, a point. 

I'm being a little unfair. First, because this does kind of drop in those quasi-ghost scenes involving visions of Grace's father in a weird cabin shaped like a cross. The movie leaves some stuff ambiguous: there actually could be supernatural shit going on along with the mundane gaslighting. Or maybe it's just Grace having a breakdown.

And it does have something of a point, in that we're of course meant to realize it doesn't matter whether the ghost is real or in Grace's head, because it's real to her. And we're probably also supposed to understand that by creating a false reality, they transformed Grace's actual reality with horrific consequences.

Right-wing news media and conservative politicians, take note.

But the fact it's kids responsible - kids with a frankly sympathetic backstory - makes the moral a little hard to swallow. Aiden and Mia aren't evil or even particularly cruel: they're grieving, confused, broken kids who don't understand Grace's trauma or their own. This is more tragedy than cautionary tale. Only by design, the movie keeps us at arm's length from the characters to hide their motives, so we never really get a sense of what they're going through or why they make the choices they make. As I said before, the movie sells those choices, which - again - is pretty impressive given the circumstances. But that's enough for horror, not drama, and in a technical sense, that's sort of what The Lodge secretly is.

Or at least that's one interpretation. There's another way to look at this that's a bit more charitable and also potentially lands this in a fairly exclusive club: atheist Christmas movies. The Lodge is steeped in Catholic iconography, which is unnerving to both Grace and the audience. There's also a scene at the beginning where Mia is inconsolable, because of the church's beliefs about suicide. It's a dark moment, in some ways even more so in the larger context of the film, since it's not explicitly set in a world where that belief is founded on anything. The role of religion in both Grace's life and the kids' is to traumatize them. Arguably, it's that background that pushes Aiden and Mia to enact their plan. And it's certainly Grace's religious upbringing that leads her to echo the tragic end of her father's cult. By removing the supernatural aspect that typically drives this genre, The Lodge instead could be seen as shifting blame to religion. And, of course, Aiden and Mia's grand lie could be said to mirror how many atheists feel about all religion: it's a lie that generates trauma and eventually leads to tragedy.

I'm not 100% sure I buy that reading. For one, I'm not convinced it works with the inherent ambiguity in Grace's visions of her father. You could interpret these as being part of her subjective reality - i.e.: religion creates a harsh internal view of the world that's ultimately dangerous - but there is a simpler, more cynical interpretation for all of this. Namely that the iconography, Mia's trauma at the idea her mother isn't in heaven, and Grace's visions could just be a bunch of red herrings. The movie really wants you to think the kids' mom's ghost is going to show up in act three; that could be the sum total of the filmmakers' motivations.

If anyone knows of any interviews with directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala that confirm or deny the interpretation that this is intended as a critique of faith, I'd be grateful for a link below.

Regardless, let's talk a little more about Christmas, because otherwise what the hell am I doing here? Considering the timing and wintery setting, the Christmas elements are unusually sparse. A few years ago, I'd probably have debated writing this up at all: there's an argument its timing is more incidental than significant. But of course horror is itself a midwinter tradition, and - intentionally or not - this is a part of that history.

Also, there's a brief aside about how Grace's fanatical cult didn't recognize Christmas, as it's not mentioned in the Bible. Perhaps the holidays being downplayed is supposed to be tied to that dynamic. Was the stripping away of Christmas supposed to mirror Grace's own reversion to zealotry? Perhaps. Either way, I was glad to see this at least namechecked - historically, opposition to Christmas has mostly come from Christian extremists, no matter what Fox News claims. Popular culture doesn't explore that enough.

Again, I'm extremely torn on this film, even more so as I think about the atheist reading. While I don't consider myself an atheist, I love variety, and it's one viewpoint that's highly underrepresented in holiday media. My opinion on this moves up a notch when I view it through that lens, though - again - I'm not entirely sure I buy it.

But I suspect most of you couldn't care less about that interpretation, so let's set that aside and focus on the experience this offers. The best comparison I have is it feels a lot like reading an incredibly well written short story that doesn't actually have that much to say. Even if I assume the atheist stuff was intentional, I still wouldn't consider this a particularly deep film (unless, of course, I'm missing something else, which is always a possibility). My impression is that this is ultimately a sort of exercise, one that's well crafted (and very well acted), but your takeaway is mostly going to boil down to whether you enjoy the style and tone. I'm not at all surprised it's as divisive as it is.