Billed as an “arthouse horror” film, The Lodge (2019) certainly puts forth the effort of Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz. However, while the film has its merits, it certainly falls short of doing anything spectacular, even though it still has its moments and redeeming qualities. Why did this film fall short in comparison to instant classics like Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Midsommar, or Robert Egger’s The Witch? Let’s explore.
Warning: this analysis will contain spoilers. The opening of The Lodge shows us the events that form a sort of prologue into the “present” events. Laura Hall, played by Alicia Silverstone, is a distraught mother who is in the process of divorce, taking her children to their father’s place for his turn of custody. This sequence concludes with Laura, who has been pressured by Richard to sign the divorce documents because he wishes to marry his new partner, committing suicide in her house. Her children are devastated, but appear to bond over the cataclysmic event in their lives. Time shifts forward to the winter, and Richard wants his children to meet their soon-to-be stepmother and spend holiday time in a remote lodge further north. Richard needs to return to the city for a couple of days for work, but intends to come back after and ensure the family vacation finishes smoothly. Grace, a survivor of a suicide cult run by her father during her childhood, expresses doubts and feels insecure about meeting her future step-children, but agrees, and the children reluctantly accept the trip themselves. When Richard leaves, a series of seemingly paranormal incidents begin to occur throughout the lodge, and although these events seem to help dissolve tensions between Grace and the kids, it also grows anxiety about whether they will stay alive long enough to see Richard again- or even if they were alive anymore. After Grace’s dog goes missing, she searches endlessly in what seems like an endless winter landscape, and after being stretched to her psychological limit, she finds the corpse of her dog- something that Aiden says is impossible if they are truly stuck in a dimension of Hell as he proposed to Grace earlier. The loss of her dog triggers the final erosion of Grace’s ego, and she begins ritualistic self-harm, reliving her traumatic childhood and reciting scripture. Aiden and Mia both have been manipulating events and making Grace believe they are stuck in Purgatory, when in reality they were hiding all the food and Grace’s psychotropic medications from her. When Richard finally manages to make it back to the lodge after enough snow from a blizzard has cleared, he finds his children fleeing in fear of Grace, who is wielding the family pistol that Richard had given her to protect the family while he was away. Grace tells him they truly are in Purgatory, and after Richard attempts to deescalate the situation, she puts the gun to her head and the pistol clicks. When Richard asks for the gun, she points it at him and fires, killing him and sending the children running. After pursuing them (and the car dying, preventing their escape), Grace then forces the children into the ritual that she had once watched herself, and the film ends implying that Grace followed through with murdering the children.
On the surface, the story does a lot, but what we see on screen is not presented as anything particularly deep or interesting, and most of the cinematography and shot composition lacks particular emotion- something which the soundtrack does nearly nothing to rectify. There are certainly moments where these elements do come together and create some fantastic, memorable scenes, but it’s entirely inconsistent. One of my favorites is when Grace is sleepwalking after not having her medication for days, and she is walking through the lodge in a trance, believing herself to be walking through the den where members of the cult had committed suicide. As she walks through the house, she is carrying the gun, and beautiful organ music loudly blares over any potential noise the lodge could be making. The music ends just as she enters the children’s room. Compare this to Hereditary, where the soundtrack is perfectly complementing any actions taking place on screen, both in matching the tone and providing a perfect crescendo when moments of tension and anxiety rise in the viewer. At times, it is perfectly silent, but Aster utilizes the score to fuel the atmosphere of the scene. The Lodge often does the reverse of this, using a minimal soundtrack and attempting to have ambient noises such as wood creaking when characters walk providing the anxiety. While this does work, it provides less anxiety and more questioning, making the viewer ask “when is the jumpscare coming” and forcing the viewer out of the immersion. Perhaps this film was a victim of its time, where modern horror films overuse the jumpscare to the point of it being useless, but a director needs to be cognizant of present trends and clichés. It was nice that this film was not laden with jumpscares, but so much of the supposed tension-building moments either led to nothing or implied a jumpscare was coming to the viewer rather than delivering a sort of disturbing image or feeling. Attempts to retain the anxiety of nearly-pure silence don’t work, you need to provide the atmosphere yourself without relying on the methodology of gimmicks, even if you do not use the gimmick yourself.
One of the devices I do enjoy quite a bit from The Lodge is the use of perspective shifting. Aster’s Hereditary did something similar, to an extent, with shifting the perspective from Charlie to Peter after Charlie is beheaded early on in Hereditary. It’s not an uncommon technique in horror, and in The Lodge, the perspective shifts to whomever is supposed to be the “victim” not through brief moments like in slasher films (where suddenly you will be watching a few minutes of some teenager’s perspective before Jason or Freddy or a serial killer ends their life), but through extended investment. We spend quite some time watching Laura question her stance with Richard before she becomes a victim of herself. For a majority of the film, we see events take place through Grace’s perspective, who is at first believed to be experiencing the effects of Purgatory when in reality she is the victim of a brutal plan of psychological torture from Aiden and Mia. After Aiden and Mia break Grace, they become the pending victims of her delusions and hallucinations. The issue is that we occasionally see glimpses of moments where the perspective shifts temporarily to explain a point of the plot, such as showing the kids at the funeral get the idea for a plan of vengeance, and when Richard can’t get a hold of anyone at the lodge and decides to drive in from the city to get there as soon as possible. Due to the nature of the plot, both of these events would have been lessened had they been shown through other ways, but I don’t think it would have been impossible to rectify it. Instead it makes it seem like an oversight, and once again breaks the viewer’s immersion.
One of the least sensible scenes in the entire film, however, is that the kids’ plan is very much reliant upon a blizzard happening at the right moment that they are in the lodge itself. Had it happened before their father left, their entire plan would have been for naught as Richard would have been there the entire time, and their quest for vengeance is because they love their mother and they still love their father and believe he shouldn’t be with Grace. On top of this, despite the fact that there is some great shot composition in the sequence, the scene when Grace attempts to weather the snowstorm and stumbles upon an old shack where she hallucinates seeing her dead father don’t make any sense. In the sequence, it’s implied that because she is in “Purgatory”, that she can never find any neighbors or a road or signal or anything resembling life, and that the route takes her back to the lodge even when she wasn’t trying to return. This sequence of events would make sense if there is some manner of paranormal happening, and while it still could be the case, it’s directly stated that the children enacted this plan in a realistic manner. These exaggerations would at least be arguable if the film was les ambiguous about its premise, but there isn’t enough happening to decipher on subsequent viewings whether the events in the film are literal or if there are paranormal events happening. When Richard confronts Grace at the lodge at the end, you see Grace put the gun barrel against her head and then a distinct click of the trigger, as if it’s either jammed or misfiring, but when she points the gun at Richard and fires, there are no issues. Could it have been something paranormal? Perhaps, but it’s still implied that these are incidences of coincidence, and even then nothing is definitive in any capacity. There is “allowing the audience to arrive at their own conclusions” and “making the audience just guess because not enough information is presented”, and this particular point falls into the latter.
In a lot of ways, the constant comparisons to Hereditary feel entirely appropriate- there is a commentary on the nature of family, religion, and nihilism being put forth by the directors here, and while all the performances in Hereditary are fantastic, only Riley Keough brings anything exemplary to the table for The Lodge. Nobody does a bad job in this film, but Keough truly gives life to the film in ways that her supporting cast almost can’t. In fact, this film is nearly characterized by one standout surrounded by the passable- nothing in the film is bad or inadequately executed, but it’s simply not as deep as it wishes it was. While the film has good bones, not enough meat is put on them to elevate it past that- something its peers achieve that set them apart. If I were to rate this film, I’d give it a 6 out of 10, and remind myself that it’s much better to be overambitious and fail with a soul rather than not have a soul at all. This film at least has a soul, despite tripping along the way.