Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Neon releases the film on Friday, February 7.
“The Lodge” opens with a graphic suicide enacted as a jump scare, and it’s clear that directors Severin Fail and Verokia Franz aren’t messing around. The Austrian filmmakers’ English-language follow-up to their disturbing 2014 debut “Goodnight Mommy” resurrects many of the same unnerving tropes: a pair of kids trapped in a remote house, the circumstances of their situation lingering in ambiguity and baked in palpable dread. Those siblings were naughty, demented, and haunted by their past; the ones in “The Lodge,” however, could be any of those things or none of them, as the directors play endless mind games until even the jump scares ring hollow.
But that’s not to say that the movie lacks a freaky setup, or the same deliciously creepy atmosphere that made “Goodnight Mommy” such a haunting ride. After Richard (Richard Armitage) tells his estranged wife (Alicia Silverstone) that he wants a divorce, she calmly heads home and puts a gun in her mouth. The couple’s bereaved children Aiden (“It” star Jaeden Lieberher) and Mia (Lia McHugh) barely have time to recover before Richard announces plans to marry his new girlfriend Grace (Riley Keough), who escaped an extremist evangelical death cult that served as the subject of one of Richard’s books. The kids show little interest in their dad’s new squeeze, but he’s keen on establishing an opportunity for them to bond, and plans for them to spend a few days together at the same winter cabin where their mother blasted her brains out.
It’s not the sanest idea, but when Grace first arrives, she’s eager just to get along. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take long for this snowy retreat to drop menacing hints of the dreariness to come. Not long after a close call on the icy lake in front of the house, Richard heads back to town for work and leaves Grace with the kids to settle in. But Aiden can’t stop shooting resentful gazes at the young woman, and when she catches him leering at her in the shower, “The Lodge” hints at the possibility that he may be the movie’s real creeper. Her confrontation with him goes nowhere, and after a bizarre and possibly supernatural twist at the one-hour mark, “The Lodge” establishes a tantalizing trio of interpretations: Either Aiden’s messing with Grace, she’s messing with him, or they’re all victims of some unseen and quite terrible perpetrator.
Keough’s dazed expression suggests that she’s still recovering from her own past struggles, and the movie gradually ventures into her disturbed mind to elaborate on the damage: As the kids soon discover, she has a tendency to wander the creaky cabin grounds at night, sleepwalking as she endures mystifying nightmares and ominous unseen voices calling for her to repent. It’s here that the filmmakers display their real talent for eerie reveals through a series of surprising images. One alarming moment finds Grace waking up in the middle of the snow, surrounded by eternal darkness; in another, she imagines a vast, empty field of snow angels.
These jolting subjective moments could fill a whole movie, and they almost do — “The Lodge” seems more content to hover in the disquieting mood than make anything substantial out of it. An hour into the ordeal, a bizarre twist changes the nature of the characters’ surroundings and thrusts them into survival mode. Unless it’s already too late. Or is it? “The Lodge” bounces around various possibilities for much of its running time, but it fails to develop any of its three main characters enough to make the conditions of their struggle worthy of the mystery in play. Aiden and Mia are little more than frantic kids, while Grace’s troubled backstory lacks enough depth to become an effective centerpiece, making it hard to care about whatever’s haunting them from scene to scene.
At its best, the minimalist setting creates the haunting impression of “The Others” in the woods, with hints of the precise formalism that made last year’s “Hereditary” such a haunting immersion. (“The Lodge” has its own spooky dollhouse, but its function is less clear.) Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, whose credits include the aesthetically similar “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” outshines the material with extraordinary visual finesse: The snowy cabin, surrounded by a blinding white oblivion, meets its match in the shadowy narrow hallways where Grace roams after dark.
But as the characters grow more desperate about their isolation, “The Lodge” has little to do with them aside from tossing disturbing new twists to heighten the mounting sense that they’re running out of options: a frozen dog here, a brandished gun there, and the inevitable confrontation where the worst possible scenario comes to fruition. No matter how awful things get, “The Lodge” plods along toward its dark climax, and the ending feels like an open-ended cheat.
There’s genuine fear in Keough’s performance as a damaged woman grappling to contain her trauma before it destroys them all, but the movie places too much faith in her ability to carry the material through its aimless of cycle of freaky outbursts. At one point, Aiden suggests that they might be trapped in limbo, forced to remain in the cabin until they confess their sins. Watching “The Lodge,” it’s easy to relate to that feeling of entrapment. That’s a credit to the movie’s claustrophobic tendencies at its high points, but as it continues along an aimless trajectory, “The Lodge” proves that even horrible events can be a deadly bore.
“The Lodge” premiered in the Midnight section at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.