‘The Lodge’ Weaves an Eerie Puzzle That Fails to Explain Itself 

The Lodge” features one key ingredient present in most horror films, atmosphere. It’s missing another ingredient, a story. Eerie forests covered in snow surround a lonely locale, doors close on their own, and there’s even a cult somehow thrown into the mix. And yet, nothing actually happens in this movie. Lately the horror genre has seen a rebirth in the arthouse market, with certain filmmakers making titles both scary and artsy. This one jumps across the line from arthouse to pretentious.

When the story makes sense it’s about a man named Richard (Richard Armitage), who is divorced from Laura (Alicia Silverstone). There’s some renewed tension because Richard has decided to marry his girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough), a survivor from a fanatical Christian cult that committed mass suicide. Richard and Laura’s kids Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh) are also not happy with this turn of events. When Laura decides to kill herself it of course leaves a greater, painful void. Richard decides to take the kids and Grace to a lodge out in the snowy woods so the three can bond, while he comes back to the city for work. Not only is it boring to be trapped by cold and snow in a lodge, but soon enough strange moods creep in. Grace sleepwalks, haunted by memories of her cult experience, and begins to act even more deranged when it turns out her meds are missing. But is Grace losing her mind or being taken over by a presence?

“The Lodge” defines the kind of postmodern filmmaking in which you’re presented a series of images and are left to interpret them however you wish. What this movie is actually about is a secret directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz keep to themselves. It begins with a tone similar to recent movies that combine classic horror themes with a more arthouse vibe like “Hereditary.” Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis has gained a reputation for the coldly surreal images he’s crafted for the films of Yorgos Lanthimos like “The Lobster” and “Killing of a Sacred Deer.” In “The Lodge” he effectively creates an eerie ambiance for the lodge where Grace, Aidan and Mia are trapped. We get many moody pans through hallways and living rooms and Bakatakis makes the endless landscapes of snow beyond the lodge look truly threatening. Fiala and Franz keep cutting back to a miniature model house at Richard’s other home, and it appears to be an exact replica of the lodge itself. It’s never clear what this visual motif is meant to convey. Maybe it is a kind of supernatural predictor for what’s to come? Someone describes a dream about everyone in the lodge suffocating and we then see figurines lying around the miniature as if they’re dead. But it never actually happens. There are many half-way developments like this in the movie. 

The narrative begins to fracture from the beginning when Alicia Silverstone suddenly takes a seat and shoots herself. There’s not much of a lead-up to the suicide and what’s worse is that it has little to do with the rest of the story. Instead of going the easy but clear route of possibly making it about Laura’s ghost haunting the new younger wife, Fiala and Franz go the pretentious way. Grace mopes around the lodge, occasionally experiencing flashbacks to her cult days and a long-haired, mad preacher who speaks in the Old Testament tomes of every mad movie preacher. There are many close-ups and pans of giant crosses and a creepy religious painting in the lodge. The idea is Grace is slowly going crazy and the kids feel threatened. But none of Grace’s backstory is properly explored. We learn nothing about the cult or her experiences. We don’t even understand why she’s suddenly mental in the lodge when back in town with Richard she’s apparently normal. It’s the old trick in bad genre films of casually tossing in religious iconography for no other reason than it looks eerie under certain lighting. Some of the flashbacks even wink at the infamous 1997 Heaven’s Gate cult suicide, with shots of Grace’s former cult family dead in their beds with giant triangle-shaped cloths over their corpses. It’s a rather crude reference that contributes nothing to the purpose of the film except to drive the point home that Grace was once in a cult. If the filmmakers had something more in-depth to say about cults, divorce, religion or even just a plain old ghost, “The Lodge” might have been onto something.

By the third act Grace starts to wander around, talking to herself, even kneeling on hot burning logs from the fireplace as a way to flog herself in a bizarre, religious fever. Everyone is an efficient actor, including the kids who convey confusion and fear well, but what all the confusion and fear is about gets lost in the film’s puzzles. The final shot is not only a real downer, but it’s a kind of insincere form of “dark,” where the film thinks that by ending on a pessimistic note it’s somehow edgier. But as with Silverstone’s weird suicide it needs a better set up to justify its conclusion. Similar slow burners like “Hereditary” have a clear, even recycled premise at the core. In that film it’s clear who is haunting the house and by the end we get an explanation as to the dark forces at play. In “The Lodge” little is explained. It’s so sophisticated it’s up to us to explain it. The true horror comes from checking your watch and realizing how much time there’s left to go.

The Lodge” opens Feb. 7 in select theaters.